Get ready for the robot propaganda machine
Humanity has been advancing the field of propaganda for as long as we've been at war or had political fights to win. But today, propaganda is undergoing a significant change based on the latest advances in the fields of big data and artificial intelligence.
Over the past decade, billions of dollars have been invested in technologies that customise ads increasingly precisely based on individuals' preferences. Now this is making the jump to the world of politics and the manipulation of ideas.
Some recent military experiments in computational propaganda indicate where this could be taking us. In 2008, the US State Department, through its "foreign assistance" agency USAID, set up a fake social network in Cuba. Supposedly concerned with public health and civics, its operatives actively targeted likely dissidents. The site came complete with hashtags, dummy advertisements and a database of users' "political tendencies". For an estimated $1.6m (£1m), USAID was, between 2009 and 2012, able to control a major information platform in Cuba with potential to influence the spread of ideas among 40,000 unique profiles. Building on this project in 2011, USCENTCOM (United States Central Command) – the US military force responsible for operations in the broader Middle East region – awarded a contract to a Californian firm to build an "online persona management service", complete with fake online profiles that have convincing backgrounds and histories. The software will allow US service personnel to operate up to ten separate false identities based all over the world from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries". These personas allow the military to recruit, spy on and manipulate peoples' behaviour and ideas.
Such projects represent the first wave of computational propaganda, but they are constrained in their scale (and ultimately their effectiveness) by the simple fact that each profile has to be driven by an actual human on the other side. In 2015, we will see the emergence of more automated computational propaganda – bots using sophisticated artificial intelligence frameworks, removing the need to have humans operate the profiles. Algorithms will not only read the news, but write it.
These stories will be nearly indistinguishable from those written by humans. They will be algorithmically tailored to each individual and employed to change their political beliefs or to manipulate their actions. Already, Mexican drug cartels have employed propaganda bots to target messages at individual members of the public, to convince them that the death of a journalist in Las Choapas had nothing to do with hit men employed by the gangs. This type of propaganda can be produced at an almost limitless scale using the estimated ten million social-media bots. Such bots are currently available for rent on online hacker forums for between $5 and $200 per thousand, depending on how "human" – and therefore how effective – they appear.
The Russian foreign intelligence service has announced a 30-million-ruble (£500,000) contract for the "development of special software for automated information dissemination in major social networks". In 2015 we will also see the first results from initial field tests of the US IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) project to deploy propaganda bots in South America in an attempt to influence local political opinion.