POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - ECONOMY

Cyberday: How dead cats spread "cheap facts"



A woman holds a banner during the 20 October 2018 people's vote march demanding a second referendum on Brexit. "The lies on the bus go round and round" refers to Boris' Brexit bus claiming the UK gives £350m per week to the EU, money which claimed could be spent on the NHS. Shutterstock

A woman holds a banner during the 20 October 2018 people's vote march demanding a second referendum on Brexit. "The lies on the bus go round and round" refers to Boris' Brexit bus claiming the UK gives £350m per week to the EU, money which claimed could be spent on the NHS. Shutterstock

An expert shed light on an often-overlooked aspect of cyber security during Luxembourg’s second Cyberday on Thursday: the manipulation of online tools to spread disinformation.

Bee Secure’s Chris Pinchen reflected on the “dead cat” tactics commonly used by populist leaders Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, to move public debate away from inconvenient topics by metaphorically throwing a dead cat on the table and announcing clickbait-worthy stories.

He explained that the UK prime minister has shown even greater dexterity in rewriting narratives by using dead cat strategies in combination with techniques to manipulate search engine results that improve his image in Google.

Following a June 2019 altercation between Johnson and his partner that involved police and dominated headlines before he was appointed prime minister in July, the politician refused to speak about the incident. Instead the then-foreign secretary gave a television interview in which he talked about his hobbies, which involved turning wine bottle boxes into buses and painting the happy faces of passengers onto them.

“Of course, all of the press immediately shifted their attention from what he happened in the altercation and began talking about why Boris Johnson was talking about wine boxes,” Pinchen said. The interview had a secondary effect: it pushed previously unflattering references between Johnson and buses, from the time he was London mayor, and the false claim posted on the Boris Brexit bus that the UK pays £350m per week to the EU, down the Google search list.

Thanks to this artful manipulation of search engine techniques, after the interview, when searching Johnson and buses, the top stories that emerged related to the interview about his arts and crafts hobbies.

“If you’re getting to a situation where the world leaders use public interventions to manipulate SEO and where things like that happen, we’re now in a very difficult situation with regards to information,” Pinchen said, adding: “The fakes have become mainstream. Now we have cheap facts. That’s what Boris did. He manipulated information without using any kind of specialised technology.”

The talk offered a taster of the new Bee Secure school workshops offered as part of the organisation’s #checkyourfacts campaign.

Pinchen also touched on the worrying rise of artificially generated images used to create fake social media accounts. He urged conference attendees to test their own abilities to spot fakes by visiting the site whichfaceisreal.

The half-day event, co-organised by Restenda Foundation and the University of Luxembourg, included speakers from across the public and private sectors. In his closing talk, the University of Luxembourg’s Christian Hutter talked about how to survive in a digital world that is becoming increasingly complex. “It’s not a question of if you will be affected by a security incident, the question is when it will happen and to what extent, will it affect your private or company data?” he said.

In addition to challenging some myths in relation to cybersecurity, he encouraged attendees to see if their passwords had already been publicly breached by using the website haveibeenpwned?