Forget the South China Sea — data has become the new battleground
She realised that this new phenomenon was linked to a form of Russian information warfare. It was a new disturbing tactic where fake social media accounts were being used to spread misinformation through what appeared to be a state propaganda machine.
So in 2014, this investigative journalist Jessikka Aro decided to take a closer look. She wanted to uncover evidence of its existence and the influence it was having on freedom of speech and public debate in her home country of Finland.
What followed was a systematic campaign to silence her. Misinformation was quickly spread, presenting her as a foreign agent or spy. Her personal information was leaked online including her address, contact details and whereabouts. Soon afterwards she started to receive nasty text messages and threatening phone calls.
A neo-Nazi website published tens or hundreds of pieces on her, describing her as a brain damaged conspiracy theorist. This was followed by a studio quality song, whose lyrics crudely described her as a “stupid blonde” that was paid to spy for NATO. There was even a music video produced that had enough budget to hire an actress to play her part, which was then posted on Twitter and Facebook.
Tactics like this, unfortunately appear widespread. During the US election campaign, Russian trolls and bots were accused of trying to exploit the social divisions within America by covering topics such as immigration and Islamophobia. Their overarching goal seemed to be to attack the social fabric of America where it was most likely to tear apart on issues such as race, gender, class and creed.
Evidence has already been presented of a concerted campaign that took place during this period. Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google have appeared in front of a Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism and were grilled a day later by the Senate Intelligence Committee on 1 November.
In total, Russian-based political content reach roughly 126 million Americans. At the time 120 Facebook pages were set up that posted 80,000 times and bought 3,000 advertisement slots. Twitter identified 2,752 accounts linked to this campaign. Instagram took a step further, deleting 170 accounts due to fake or malicious activity after they posted 120,000 times. On YouTube 1,100 videos were posted, which received more than 300,000 views.
According to Google, these YouTube videos did however, receive very low view counts, with only 3% receiving more than 5,000 views. The effectiveness of this Russian-back campaign was therefore questionable. US national security was never at any point overtly threatened.
However, this activity did question very mildly, whether the electorate was fully capable and well informed enough to vote. It sowed the seeds of doubt over the effectiveness of democracy in the 21st century at a time when the popularity of the ideology is in decline.
In this new information age there is a new battlefront, and it’s not the South China Sea. Who controls the flow and creation of data is arguably more of a geopolitical game-changer than China’s assertion over the mineral rights in these troubled waters.
Some are drawing parallels with this conflict over data with past conflicts over the flow of oil. It makes sense because whoever is victorious would gain an economic edge globally over their rivals.
However, there is a significant difference between oil and data. While oil is a finite resource there is no limit to the creation of data. In fact, more data has been created in the last two years than the previous 5,000 years of humanity.
The parallels with oil are interesting though. Today, there are even calls for the large tech giants to be broken up, just like Standard Oil was in the early 20th century. This is because there is a lot to win and profit from if you harness data correctly.
For instance, airlines have saved billions using the data collected from the sensors on their jet engines to cut on aviation fuel costs. Assemble lines in factories are being virtually simulated beforehand and the data analysed, saving manufactures significant time and money before manufacturing even begins.
How data is collected, processed, used and profited on will be immensely important in the future. There is a worry that some companies may wield even more power than their governments as a result.
The reach of Amazon, Google and Facebook — not to mention LinkedIn — into our daily lives cannot be underestimated. We interact with them daily, which allow them to collect a huge amount of data about us, revealing our buying habits, interests, political ideas, religious beliefs, age, ethnicity etc.
The way these companies profit from some services they offer — some seemingly free — has been hugely underestimated. There’s a land grab underway to control this data and the only limitation is the speed of the Internet itself.
This has led Amazon for instance, to launch the Snowball: a rugged device that allows businesses to send a 100 terabytes of data via a FedEx courier, directly to Amazon’s web servers to store in the cloud (this represents generous storage for about 100 laptops). Amazon have even gone a step further and built a Snowball Truck that can transport 100 petabytes to the cloud in an instance (now that’s storage for about 100,000 laptops).
Companies like Amazon are slowing restructuring the shape of our global economy. Amazon for instance has eaten aggressively into the consumer retail space, displacing traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses. It wields so much influence that panic followed its announced purchase Whole Foods supermarket chain in August. Within two hours, the market value of the industry’s incumbents plunged by almost $12 billion.
Those giant tech companies have built what Benjamin Graham describes as “moats” that protect their competitive edge in this new digital age. Perhaps valuations are lofty, but their long-term competitive advantages are likely to endure thanks to a self-reinforcing “network effect” provided by the web.
For instance, the more searches and listings there are on Google, the more powerful the search engine’s functions become. The more subscribers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the better the engagement levels are on these social media sites. The greater the range of what Amazon can sell, the more potential buyers it will reach and the easier it becomes to sell to them. This “network effect” also brings with it cost advantages and efficiency gains as these businesses grow in size.
Concern over the monopolisation of data therefore should not be underestimated even if it is abundant in supply. Trump has already frequently ranted on Twitter about the destructiveness of Amazon on the US economy. Perhaps it’s just popular social media dribble like how kittens videos can rack up thousands of likes. Or, it could be a clever appeal to the marginalised American workers of the future, displaced by automation and digital tech innovation.
However, if anything the US economy is poised to strengthen and put itself first in this new information age. It’s built the architecture and provided the tech companies to facilitate this paradigm shift in the global economy.
So forget the South China Sea! The new battlefront is data and the US appears to be in the lead. However, it’s anyone’s guess at what cost this will be, both socially and politically to the country.
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