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Detecting the Agenda

January 23, 2011

Here’s my column in today’s Gulf Daily news. The column covers one aspect of a talk I attended last week at the Bahrain office of the UK-based think tank, the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The aspect I latched on to was cybercrime, and particularly the speaker’s comments on the 419 scam. The talk, which was delivered by a former member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, is well worth a listen. It covered a much wider range of subjects, such as cyber warfare and the nature of the stuxnet worm attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. It’s published here on the IISS website.

My column is about cybercrime and the vulnerability of people to manipulation, both via the internet and conventional print and broadcast media: 

Cybercrime is a big issue these days. In economic terms, according to Nigel Inkster, director of transnational threats and political risk at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the estimated annual cost to private sector companies of criminal groups who use the Internet for fraud and other purposes is $1 trillion. To put that figure into context, that’s approximately 20 times the projected revenue of Bahrain for 2011. Or, to look at it another way, it’s what you would have to pay for 12,000 footballers of the calibre of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player.

One of the classic Internet frauds is the “419 scam”. Out of the blue, you get a letter or an e-mail offering you a slice of a huge sum of money which for one reason or another is locked away. The scamster promises you this reward in return for your co-operation in helping him to access the funds. But first you have to send him money up front. Surprise, surprise, you never see your money again. The scam originated in Nigeria many years ago. Variants are still in use across the world, although since the coming of the Internet, e-mail is the preferred medium of propagation.

What amazed me was Mr Inkster’s statement that around 20 per cent of recipients of these communications end up falling for the scam and sending money. That makes for a very profitable little business with minimal operating costs. Millions of these e-mails and letters go out every year. How could so many people be so gullible?

Back in prehistory, I learned how to do radio and TV interviews, write Press releases and also how to place news into the media. Part of my training involved analysing stories in the media, working out where they were likely to have come from, and what was the agenda behind them. This was before the days of the Internet, so the focus was entirely on the print media, radio and TV.

These days, millions of people get their news and opinions exclusively from the Internet. They read blogs, visit bulletin boards and go to sites like the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and a number of other mainstream content providers. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, sites such as YouTube, with their instantly digestible video clips, get as much viewing as mainstream TV.

Newspapers usually have a fairly obvious set of agendas, even if some are more subtle than others. In the UK, if I meet a hypochondriac believer in aliens who has a fairly right-of-centre political bent, I can predict with some confidence that he or she will be a Daily Mail reader. But the Internet is a sea of unlicensed manipulation. There are thousands of sites claiming to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that the source of the information they push, and the motivation of those responsible for the sites, is often masked, or at least not obvious to the reader.

The majority of Internet users are reasonably street-wise. But if the example of the 419 scam holds true, there is a significant minority who succumb to Internet predators – not just financial, but also political and religious.

Not a week goes by in the Middle East when we don’t hear about this or that initiative to promote critical thinking in the young. I would argue that an essential dimension of critical thinking is to be able to look objectively and sceptically at information derived from the media – regardless of whether it comes from the Internet or the traditional sources – before swallowing the stories, arguments and messages wholesale. And that, in my opinion, is an ability that should be taught by parents at home and by teachers from primary school onwards. Information is the stuff of life, but when dressed up by the unscrupulous, it can be very dangerous indeed.

You could argue that as a blogger, I’m one of the army of unlicenced manipulators to whom I refer. That may be true, but at least in everything I write, I represent nobody but myself. However, that’s for you to judge…..

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