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Column: This week proved it: The internet is optimized to do us harm

The Facebook login page.
(Adrian Wyld / Associated Press)

The word “breach” evidently struck terror in the heart of Facebook last week. On March 16, the company brass pressured the Guardian not to use it, threatening to sue, according to a reporter’s tweet.

As Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and his coterie well knew, the U.K. newspaper was readying a dramatic exposé that was not exactly going to redound to the glory of Facebook.

Facebook, the world was about to learn, had not just been infested with Russian trolls creating cacophony and discord. It had been undermined by alleged data thieves.

What’s worse, Facebook had been hospitable to the breach. Even solicitous.

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These revelations drew notice even from Americans skeptical of the notion that attacks on the internet represent acts of war. A grass-roots #DeleteFacebook campaignbegan, which Zuckerberg, usually blasé about such things, admitted made him nervous. Alex Stamos, the chief security officer at Facebook, announced he would resign from the company in August, having reportedly been appalled by the company’s failures of vigilance. Leaders of two separate congressional committees called on Zuckerberg to testify. In primetime, Zuckerberg offered a halting mea culpa that reassured neither investors nor investigators.

All the while, the deluge.

Evidence has surfaced daily and sometimes hourly this week that the internet is under assault. And not just from the Kremlin, or from corrupt far-right consultancies with unscrupulous methods and shadowy foreign ties. But from nine Iranian hackers tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, whom the Justice Department indicted on Friday for a massive campaign of cyberattacks. According to the indictment,the attacks netted more than 31 terabytes of stolen academic data and intellectual property, the bulk of it from American universities, government agencies and NGOs.

What a week for the internet.

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Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, called the indictments “one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”

That announcement came just six days after the initial revelations about Facebook and the wacky and arrogant cloak-and-dagger firm known as Cambridge Analytica. Now notorious for reports of what might be called customized ethical solutions for political campaigns, Cambridge, which is capitalized by the right-wing Mercer family, is also — as it happens — buddies with one John Bolton. Bolton, of course, is the president’s brand-new national security advisor, who was named to the post Thursday.

In 2014, Bolton hired the then-embryonic Cambridge to harvest data, including from tens of millions of — you got it — Facebook profiles.

What a week for the internet.

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But back to last weekend. On Saturday, we learned the story of Aleksandr Kogan, a British academic andFacebook collaborator, who harvested personal data from 50 million unconsenting Americans on Facebook four years ago. We also learned that Kogan turned the haul over to Cambridge Analytica.

With vast data caches like that one, Cambridge, its brass later boasted, cinched political victories for charmers like Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, and Donald Trump, the president of the United States. Others disagree.

Don’t say “breach,” Facebook had warned. The Guardian didn’t care. “Major data breach,” it announced. Facebook’s stock price did care. The company lost some $60 billion in market value in the first two days of the week, which is more than Tesla’s entire market cap.

Unlike at the other breached internet firms — Yahoo, Uber, Ashley Madison — we know something about what was done with the 50 million names, “liking” histories, and other intimate info that Cambridge acquired. The flamingo-haired Christopher Wylie, who says he built Cambridge’s “psychological warfare tool,” told the media the idea was to confuse the hell out of targeted Facebook users — with a view to affecting their behavior and even their votes.

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As Wylie put it in an interview on morning TV, Cambridge aimed “to explore mental vulnerabilities of people” and “inject information into different streams or channels of content online, so that people started to see things all over the place that may or may not have been true.”

If your head is spinning, that’s the point. According to still-breaking news, the data of hundreds of millions of Americans have been exploited. According to the March 22 indictments, intellectual property has been stolen. Our power grids have been threatened (Russian hackers, apparently) and by now we ought to know our social media has been choked with disorienting lies optimized to upset us.

The vertigo online is an effect of what information warfare expert Molly McKew calls “data pollution” — pervasive digital noise that can stultify democracy, media and markets.

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“We are all getting false signals,” journalist Craig Silverman said this month in testimony before the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy.

“Our human faculties for sense making, and evaluating and validating information, are being challenged and in some ways destroyed.”

We’re certainly in the thick of false signals and data pollution right now. And maybe, also, the fog of war.

Twitter: @page88

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