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Don’t Get Burned by Digital Wildfires

The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Risk Report has a section called “Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World.” It starts by reminding us that in 1938, a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was mistaken for real news of a Martian invasion. The report then asks whether the spread of false reports via the Internet could have severe real-world consequences.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the mailing of ricin-laced letters, and the al-Qaeda-linked plot to derail trains in Canada, among other crises, Internet-generated news hoaxes may seem a minor worry. But they have the potential to be used as force-multipliers to amplify the harm a single person or group can cause, especially if combined with a physical attack or used at a time of high tension or mass confusion.

In fact, we’ve already seen some of the potential damage that could be wrought with this type of weapon. For example, one reporter’s AP Twitter account was successfully hijacked via a phishing attack on April 23, and it was used to spread a false report that the White House had been bombed and the President injured. The AP Twitter account has 1.9 million followers, and that false report remained live and unchallenged for about four minutes, long enough for it to cause a precipitous drop in the value of the stock market.

Fortunately, in this particular instance, the report was discredited and the stock market rebounded within a very short time frame, but one can see the potential for an enemy, especially in a crisis, to use false Internet news reports to sow confusion and panic and even to cause actual physical or financial damage—some of which might not be reversible. One can extrapolate the possibilities, for example, from what has occurred in some pranks where people have tricked hotel guests into breaking windows when they were told their rooms were filled with toxic gas, or the like.

The World Economic Forum report cites a 2012 case in which 30,000 people fled a tech center in Bangalore, India, in a panic based on nothing more than a text message saying they would be attacked in retaliation for violence they had committed in their home state of Assam. It cites other examples of events that have occurred that illustrate how the Internet’s power could be harnessed to harm specific companies or the economy at large or even to incite crowd violence. It notes that when false tweets feed into an existing worldview of a group, dislodging false reports can be especially difficult.

The report also notes the challenge of countering this threat, given the difficulty of tracing the origins of cybercommunications and the need to balance privacy and free speech rights. Nevertheless, organizations and governments should not wait until they are the victims of a damaging incident; they should start thinking now about ways to detect and contain digital wildfires before they can generate real heat.