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31 October 2017

How do you stop a faceless digital terrorist?

Written by: Ben Fenton, Senior Director at Edelman

Government Affairs, News, Technology

The Russian trolling organisation that Facebook will tell the US Congress today may have reached 126 million people during the American presidential election is called the Internet Research Association. Hmm. “The IRA”.

The acronym seems very apt for an organisation that is just one of a collection of secretive gangs that fight asymmetric wars in the battlefield that most counts in today’s world: the digital battlefield.

Because the peddlers of fake news are the terrorists of digital. Some of them, of course, are just the digital arms of real, armed groups whose normal mode of operation is to terrorise with the gun, the bomb, the lorry. But some have no physical manifestation. Their weapons are servers and laptops and their tactics are to poison the well of information that keeps the world alive. They are just as likely to be governments as to be greasy-haired “asocial” losers plotting revolution in grim suburban bedsits.

Some digital terrorists do it for no apparent reason, although because anonymity has become the guardian of the malign online, the word “apparent” is not as lazy a cliché as it might usually be.

Anonymity in social media, on forums and in digital advertising is what permits the worst excesses of digital terrorism, yet we do nothing about it. To the online assassin of our social order, the knowledge that they cannot be traced through thickets of VPNs and false trails gives them the security to do or say anything they want. Facebook and the other owners of platforms exploited by those of bad intent have no interest in exposing their customers (no, their customers are not the owners of Facebook accounts, they are the product that Facebook presents to its actual customers, the advertisers) to public or official scrutiny.

Any action suggested by national or transnational organisations to restrict anonymity or combat digital terrorism prompts screams of outrage. Some of it comes from the asocial community of those who have something to hide from the ordinary people who just want to enjoy the undoubted benefits of social media, those of us who wish simply to learn from the wisdom of the village that the internet ideally represents; some of the objections come from organisations that make boundless sums of money from the chaos of advertising and audiences online.

The voice of you and me is rarely heard. The people whose physical world is made weaker by the madness of the internet mob – for that truly is the “Mr Hyde” face of the wisdom of the village – seem to have few representatives.

Maybe we should change that. Wouldn’t it be nice, on the day Europe marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s dramatic challenge to the corrupt order of the medieval church, if someone stood up to the corruption of the internet and nailed series of virtual Theses to the gateway of one of the digital world’s cathedrals?

And the first would be: end anonymity, because anonymity is the cloak of terror.

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