Delegates attending the World Economic Forum this month will ponder whether a bogus tweet from a prankster or nation state could go viral and set off tremors across the world.
In a new report, the WEF places “massive digital misinformation” at the centre of a range of technological and geopolitical risks that include critical systems failure, cyber attacks and systemic financial failure.
The report warns that misinformation spreading like “digital wildfire” over social networks could “wreak havoc in the real world”.
“The notion that a tweet, blog or video posting could drive a similar public panic today is not at all far-fetched,” the WEF says, pointing, amongst other incidents, to the riots across the Middle East over the YouTube video “Innocence of the Muslims” as one example of hyper-connectivity causing real harm.
The ensuing panic from bogus information racing across social networks would be a modern day version of the terror felt by US citizens after HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds was presented as a series of radio news bulletins in 1938, it says.
“Self-correcting mechanisms” on the Internet, such as the community of volunteers behind Wikipedia corrections, could counter false information in many circumstances, but in situations of high tension a false rumour could have a devastating impact before being corrected, the report warns.
“The real-world equivalent is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre – even if it takes only a minute or two for realisation to spread that there is no fire, in that time people may already have been crushed to death in a scramble for the exit.”
The report also touches on the problem of attribution of attacks on the internet -- a challenge that has come in focus with the rise of state-sponsored malware, such as Stuxnet, accusations against China for espionage, and blame levelled at Iran for the ongoing distributed denial of service attacks on US banks.
The report warns of the risks that false attribution could have in a highly charged environment. “It is not always easy to trace the source of a digital wildfire. It would be possible for careful cyber attackers to cover their tracks, raising the possibility of an organisation or country being falsely blamed for propagating inaccurate or provocative information. Depending on existing tensions, the consequences of the false attribution could be exponentially worse than if no attribution had been made.”
The most dangerous situations for bogus information to cause chaos are when they spread in situations of high tension -- such as when Hurricane Sandy swept through New York -- where the impact of a false message occurs before there was a chance to correct it.