Misinformation readings

[Cross-posted from Medium https://medium.com/misinfosec/misinformation-readings-d29b62a60f10]

my misinformation bookshelf

I always tuck two books in my bag for travel , and was amused last week to see multiple Sofwerx speakers with the same yellow book (Singer and Brooking’s LikeWar). Other people were asking me for book recommendations, so here they are.

First, a caveat: these are not practical books (that’s why I’m busy writing one), and current literature on misinformation has a heavy focus on the 2016 US elections. That’s understandable: like the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the 2016 Russian attacks across US social media showed a previously-secure America fragilities it assumed that only other countries had (FWIW, my personal opinion is that the truth is more complex than “some brain hackers stole an election”, but there was definitely good craft there), and it makes a strong case study. So let’s start with those books.

  • Benkler, Faris, Roberts “Network Propaganda: manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics”. Example quote: “Something fundamental was happening to threaten democracy, and our collective eye fell on the novel and rapidly changing — technology”. A data scientists’ book, in that it looks at the systems in play, analyses the data available, and considers how insights from it could be applied in other situations. I’ve been recommending this to people who want to start building fixes.
  • Singer and Brooking “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media”. Example quote: “Narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, and inundation are the most effective tools of online battles”. Clearly illustrates a lot of basic ideas in misinformation, written by people who’ve tracked its effects. Personally I find it over-hawkish: I know that we need to talk about information warfare, but one person’s infowars is sometimes another person’s politics, or advertising, or just plain interesting community or meme. I also found the pace slow, but that might be because I’ve lived through a lot of these things (some of the illustrations are events that I’ve worked myself). Could be a good introduction for someone completely new to the area.
  • Jamieson “Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president”. Example quote: “Outcome three: the former Secretary of State is elected and the country simply moves on, but the sabotage nonetheless has magnified cultural tensions and functioned as a pilot from which to birth later success — perhaps when she runs for a second term”. A scholarly work with a lot of insight specifically on the fragility of American politics; the style reminds me of a three-letter-agency report. Useful if you want to understand how America got to where it is now; could be well matched with Heuer’s “Structured Analytics Techniques for intelligence analysis”.
  • Watts “Messing with the enemy: surviving in a social media world of hackers terrorists, Russians and fake news”. Example quote: “Having trained at the FBI academy and studied Soviet politics, military and intelligence at West Point, I recognized the technique as the digital update to age-old spycraft”. First-person account from one of the people I call ‘trackers” — individuals who interact with terrorist and misinformation accounts and targets online. Useful if you want to understand what tracking misinformation online looks like in practice.

The next part of my bookshelf is about how we got here in the first place.

  • Denning “Information Warfare and Security”. Misinformation attacks are a form of hacking. If you really want to understand information warfare, and where the misinformation version of it might go next, Denning is the classic book. Read it.
  • Berger “Contagious: why things catch on”. If you want to understand misinformation, you need to understand belief systems, online belief transfer and specifically how we transfer beliefs through things like memes. This book helps.
  • Johnson “The information diet: a case for conscious consumption”. A book focussed on the problem of online information overload, written at the time that crisis data teams first started seeing test misinformation messages appearing during disasters (Kate Starbird has detailed these in her work), by the person who managed Obama’s online campaign. I re-read this to remind myself of where we’ve come from online.
  • Tufekci “Twitter and tear gas: the power and fragility of networked protest”. A tool is a tool. The things that are useful to someone running a misinformation campaign are also useful to someone supporting an honest political campaign, or a popular revolution. The author understands well both parts of this, and works through the Arab Spring, algorithms and surveillance states as part of this new internet power.

(that list was hard to build: McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride, Schelling’s Strategy of conflict, Holiday’s Trust me I’m lying, VanPutte’s Walking Wounded, and Galloway’s The Four are just some of the great books in the reject pile).

And finally, a section on ‘next’. YMMV, but I like to keep these three books around to ground me:

  • Brunton and Nissenbaum “Obfuscation: a user’s guide for privacy and protest”. Keeping yourself safe and private is hard work these days. This “how-to” book for individuals has lots of useful ideas that could be scaled and/or automated.
  • O’Neil “Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy”. Future campaigns will most likely be a combination of people and algorithms targetting people and algorithms. This book describes what happens when algorithms are applied to people’s lives without care, e.g. without checking for bias or discrimination in the data or models that they’re built with, but that lack of care could also be created through model poisoning and other algorithm-based attacks.
  • Saxe and Sanders “Malware data science: attack detection and attribution”. Misinformation, botnets, campaigns, trolls: to date they’ve been fairly crude, mostly manual or only lightly automated. That’s changing, and it’s worth keeping up with trends in the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to hacking, to see what might be coming next. There aren’t many books on this subject yet: here’s a good one.

That’s my basic booklist, and I’ve started a Goodreads list based on it that I’d love people to add to.

The other books you read on your misinformation journey will depend on who you are: I’m looking across now at shelves containing everything from geopolitics and psychology to image processing and user experience, with a little cooking and bonsai thrown in for light relief. There are also websites, groups and people to follow — I keep a basic list of those too.