I’m particularly interested in the political uses of technology-enabled deception—uses that I suspect are likely to become more prevalent in the near future.
Two of my rules for constructing useful and interesting scenarios are to (a) think about what happens when seemingly disparate changes smash together, and (b) imagine how new developments might be misused. In both cases, the goal is to uncover something unexpected, but (upon reflection) disturbingly plausible. I’d like to lay out for you the chain of connections that lead me to believe that we’re on the verge of something big.
Twitter bots: One study suggests that nearly half of the Twitter account following corporate Twitter feeds are actually bots—simple programs that mimic a human user, sending out messages, responding to keywords, and the like. Bots can be set up to retweet each other, and could potentially drive up the visibility of various hashtags and links on Twitter results.
Algorithmic trading: Increasingly, financial market trade decision are executed by software, based on programmatic rules; such rules can include responding to news feeds. Some algorithmic trading systems have branched out beyond mainstream news sources, and have connected up to Twitter feeds.
High-Frequency trading: A special form of algorithmic trading, high-frequency trading involving rapidly purchased and re-sold shares, with positions held for as little as a few seconds. Because of the speed of execution, high-frequency trading is even more dependent upon breaking news feeds (and, likely, Twitter) than regular algorithmic trading.
The Flash Crash: In May of 2010, the US Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 998 points (about 9%—the biggest one day point decline in DJIA history), only to recover within a few minutes. The apparent cause? “Order flow toxicity,” when a large seller exhausts available buyers, triggering a cascade of selling by intermediaries—particularly high-frequency algorithmic traders.
United deja-vu stock crash: In September of 2008, Google News posted as current a six-year-old article about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy; as a result, the value of UAL stock dropped by 75%, but recovered as the error was spotted.
Media hacking: Here’s where this starts to get good. It’s surprisingly easy to spread a piece of juicy misinformation, in part due to the speed of digital media, in part due to the need for news services to fill 24 hours of broadcast time, and in part due to the related need for news services to be first to break a story. Pranksters have had a field day spreading rumors, and activist groups such as The Yes Men have built a cottage industry out of making political statements through hoaxes.
But this is taking on a more sobering form. According to The Verge:
...the hackers who planted fake news stories on Reuters’s website earlier this month weren’t doing it for fun. Reuters was caught in the middle of an “intensifying conflict in cyberspace between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” in the words of one of its reporters, as hackers attempted to co-opt the news agency’s credibility in order to support government forces in the Syrian national conflict. [...]
To Americans and anyone accustomed to a free press, it should have been easy to spot the one-sided propaganda in the middle of less histrionic material. But the hackers tried to pass their message off as news. The fake posts were written in a plain, straightforward, newsman-like style, with appropriate headlines (”Riad Al-Asaad: Syrian Free Army pulls back tactically from Aleppo”) accompanied by appropriate photos.
The goal wasn’t to draw attention to an otherwise ignored issue, or simply for the lulz; the hack was done to sow confusion and to poison the information stream.
Okay, the pieces should be falling into place at this point. Algorithmic trading, particularly high-frequency trading, is extremely vulnerable to disruption; as it becomes more deeply connected to rapid news inputs from Twitter, the potential increases for misinformation flows to trigger flash crashes and stock price drops. But financial systems aren’t going to respond to a single tweet—they’re going to pay attention to “legitimate” news feeds and to sudden bursts of tweets about a particular (relevant) subject.
A black hat hacker could, with ease, create a network of Twitter bots set to retweet each other on command, send @messages to important information hubs (a few of which would retweet stories further), and drive up the visibility of certain hashtags and keywords. Done with the right target and message, and at the right time, such a network could potentially trigger sudden swings in value of targeted shares. The drop in value need not last for long; trading systems that know the stories to be false could swiftly snap up the briefly-undervalued stock. Conversely, the attack could be done in a way to cripple a particular company or stock market, or even to distract journalists from another story.
Similarly, a Twitter bot network, retweeting/spreading misinformation, could potentially cause a media firestorm if the target was a politician. Even if the misinformation was corrected within the hour, the spread would be impossible to fully contain. Could something like this even swing an election?