The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting

The tactics that work now won't work for long.

Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent.


In biology, a classic example comes from cheetahs and gazelles. Over time, these species have evolved for speed, each responding to the other's adaptations. A host of weirder examples come from the biology of sex, where males and females evolve bizarre adaptations to control reproduction, ranging from sperm plugs in bats, to cork-screw penises in ducks, to vaginas filled with deceptive dead-ends (also ducks).

One hallmark of an arms race is that, at the end, the participants are often just where they started. Sometimes, the cheetah catches its prey, and sometimes the gazelle escapes. Neither wins the race because, as one gets better, so does its opponent. And, along the way, each side expends a great deal of effort. Still, at any point, the only thing that makes sense is to keep escalating.

Arms races happen in the human world too. The term arms race, of course, comes from countries at war who literally amass ever-more sophisticated and powerful weapons. But some human arms races are more subtle.

The philosopher of science Bennett Holman has argued that the interactions between pharmaceutical companies and the regulatory bodies that seek to determine if drugs are safe and effective constitute an arms race. Pharmaceutical companies deploy an ever-evolving set of tactics to influence medical knowledge. As regulators identify these tactics, and seek to neutralise them, pharmaceutical companies find new ways to shape research.

We might call this an informational arms race. One side attempts to mislead the public over a key issue – the safety of a drug, whether climate change is real, or whether vaccines are dangerous, for example. At the same time, the other side works to combat this misinformation campaign. (Please note, this would often be referred to as a disinformation campaign, because it is purposefully intended to mislead. I use the term misinformation in this article since it is often tricky to figure out whether something is misinformation or disinformation, and since disinformation often ends up being shared by true believers with no political motives.) Of course, this is precisely the sort of interaction that social-media companies such as Twitter have found themselves engaged in.

As detailed in the Mueller report – but widely known before – in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the Russian government (via a group called the Internet Research Agency) engaged in large-scale efforts to influence voters, and to polarise the US public. In the wake of this campaign, social-media sites and research groups have scrambled to protect the US public from misinformation on social media.

Twitter, for example, has employed algorithms aimed at identifying bots and shutting down shady accounts. By their accounts, they have recently rid Twitter of 1 million such accounts per day. But when Twitter gets smarter, so do the bots. A recent report noted a new bot network on Twitter specially designed to outwit detection algorithms. (Another new trend – pernicious actors hijacking real accounts.)

What is important to recognise about such a situation is that whatever tactics are working now won't work for long. The other side will adapt. In particular, we cannot expect to be able to put a set of detection algorithms in place and be done with it. Whatever efforts social-media sites make to root out pernicious actors will regularly become obsolete.

The same is true for our individual attempts to identify and avoid misinformation. Since the 2016 US election, 'fake news' has been widely discussed and analysed. And many social-media users have become more savvy about identifying sites mimicking traditional news sources. But the same users might not be as savvy, for example, about sleek conspiracy theory videos going viral on YouTube, or about deep fakes – expertly altered images and videos.

What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

Likewise, the US government needs to take social-media misinformation seriously as a threat to public health, and to our democracy. This means devoting significant government resources to combatting it, especially since the character of an informational arms race means that there are no easy patches. It is beyond alarming that the current administration is taking a see-no-evil approach to online misinformation – ignoring pleas from the (now resigned) homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to pay attention to increasingly sophisticated Russian efforts to sway US politics. (The European Union has done much better with its East StratCom taskforce, created in 2015.)

The arms-race character of online misinformation means that we must also think of creative ways for broader social-media usership to get involved in efforts to protect public belief. Twitter, for instance, has added a bot-reporting function. This leverages the full range of abilities that humans can use to detect potential bots – abilities that can adapt as the opposition does.

Could we implement prizes or prestigious contests for independent research teams that identify new attempts at social-media misinformation? Or who come up with the best new ideas for fighting these attempts? Instead of growing victory gardens, the patriots of today can hunt down bots. We shouldn't expect to win the informational arms race, but if we want to protect our democracy, we have to keep fighting new threats as they emerge.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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