I’d start out by finding and sharing any political resentments expressed on social media, and over a period of months, I’d get a feel for the issues that got people really riled up.
I’d start writing my own posts about those issues, and then I’d do some light profiling on the social-media users who shared my posts and commented on them. I’d tailor my output to their “needs”.
By doing that, I’d gather a cast list of useful people whose buttons I could press. On both sides of any hot-button issue. Left, right, remain, leave. Real people, unaware of me, whose engagement, activism, petition-signing, confirmation bias, et cetera, I could use.
They would be influencers, and I would be behind them.
I would follow them, like them, share their posts and try to raise their profiles. I’d reinforce their self-belief; by their natures, these people would resist any suggestion that they were being manipulated.
They would be self-confident, independent thinkers with a commitment to freedom of expression – and I would be behind them.
Lenin used the term “useful idiots” [he didn’t, actually – Ed.], but I’d be kinder than Lenin. I’d fantasise about meeting them. I’d feel I was doing them a favour.
So far, the work would be up close, personal and pretty much legal. I’d be looking for individuals, and once I’d found them, I’d be, ah, supporting them. I wouldn’t be going for numbers, because my supported individuals would be my core focus group, to study as well as use.
Over time, though, I would expect to benefit from a network effect. Success, at this stage, would be one post shared by ten real people to 1,000 real followers. Over time, I’d add zeroes to that.
Content? Well, by now I’d be actively engaged with the full range of online news-and-extreme-views sites, and I’d be running several of my own. I’d use their content, my focus group’s content, my own content.
I’d be supplying and sharing content that confirmed – just slightly ratcheted up – the bias on both sides of any issue, keeping the dispute going. Obviously, I’d also be inventing and referencing surveys to show that prominent people had lied, or were prejudiced, or had done something that showed them up as – you know the kind of thing.
The sticker on my laptop would read “It’s the argument, stupid!” Anything that kept an argument going – yeah.
Meanwhile, the techies in the Finance Office next door, charged with maintaining our operating budget and destabilising the global financial system, would have put their own spin on CompScy, Stuxnewt, Wompat and Silkwahh3, and the money would be pouring in.
I’d suggest that they could ease off a bit and maybe spend their Fridays hacking the UK government, and my inbox would fill up with discs containing NHS patient records, individuals’ tax data, minutes of secret COBRA meetings, MPs’ expense claims.
To slow them down, I’d send them all on a paid coach-tour holiday to the UK, to deliver discs in person to my indignant-blogging focus-group members [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], in a flattering-to-them, faked-up leak (my guy puts down the briefcase, they pick up the briefcase; they think he’s a whistle-blower – all that) and post most of the rest anonymously to Sir [REDACTED] MP or to the Political Editor of The [REDACTED].
Some, they’d dump in skips outside government offices. It’s impossible to read a disc lying on a heap of rubbish, so we’d have to include print-outs with those.
By now, my backers would be wanting results. I’d point out that there hasn’t been a stable government in the UK since – whenever. I’d show them a PowerPoint combining the increased frequency of elections with volatility in opinion-poll data.
Finally, I’d claim credit for maintaining the roughly 50:50 split on the leave/remain issue over so many years. “It’s the argument,” I’d conclude, although I wouldn’t say “stupid”. Couldn’t rely on them to get the historical reference.
They’d ask me why I wasn’t doing anything on a larger scale. I’d say – wait. See how this has grown already. See how it grows.
They’d give me a medal. And several new identities, all with passports, properties around the world, and significant wealth. By now, money would be meaningless to me, thanks to the techies in the Finance Office, but I’d appreciate the gesture. I would have made a few of my own identities, just in case.
Of course, a respectable cyber-crime strategy can’t rely on real people alone. I’d have made other identities, not for my own use, most of them just casually generated by setting up email addresses under pseudonyms and adding details later.
Some of the more robust names I’d develop into full-scale stand-alone fake journalists and editors. These would start commissioning real people to write for my fake online news titles – I’d have several by now – and writing articles for real titles in return.
My fake journalists and editors would be ever so slightly reclusive, and they wouldn’t stay in the business for long enough to excite suspicion. Some of them might sound like me on the phone, but I’d also be using AI and machine learning and algorithms and, I don’t know, various forms of advanced robotics. I’d forget that it was all fake, sometimes.
Maybe my fake journalists and editors would last for years. Maybe they’d develop personalities of their own.
Much of the above, with obvious exceptions, is already being done by cyber-activists with a political axe to grind. My strength would be that I didn’t care either way. They see the world through a confirmation bias; I just want to keep the “national conversation” acrimonious. It’s the argument, stupid.
My cyber-attack would be small-scale and ongoing; it would cause and sustain a chronic illness in the UK political system. Over time, the infection would spread, for the simple reason that it’s human nature to argue, compete, take sides, take each other down.
I really wouldn’t have to do anything dramatic and/or on a big scale.
Also, over time, my cyber-attack would become self-sustaining. The arguments wouldn’t need my help to keep going.
I would consider myself ready to retire when I turned on the TV to watch a Leadership Debate between the leaders of the two main parties, and saw the audience laugh at both of them.
I’d attack some of my own attacks, effectively validating new online fake-news sources by using them to discredit old ones. By now, I’d have several such sources and a number of them would have become, over time, almost respectable. Notorious. Something like that. Whatever.
You would have heard of them anyway, seen them shared, maybe read a few headlines, and that would have given them a subjective validity for you.
Two of my more credible, longer-established online news sources, I wouldn’t attack. I’d give each one a political position.
One would be left, one would be right. Each would support a major party, come out in favour of one or more named individuals in that party, and if I was averagely lucky, each would offer, ah, campaign contributions and these would be accepted.
[Let’s call them “titles”. I’d make them look like newspapers.]
So I would have a left-leaning title and a right-leaning title. And one or two, or more, politicians who had taken money. I’d let that run for a while.
In the background, I would set up an ownership structure. Each of my two titles would be owned by an innocuous front company, and behind that would be a complex web of offshore companies that would seem 100% designed to obfuscate. It would be very difficult, but not impossible, for even the most dogged investigative journalist to get past the front company.
For each title, I would drop in one small clue. It would be hard to find, but once found, it would prove beyond all reasonable doubt that (a) the title was owned via a complex web of offshore companies, in a deeply sinister way, and (b) that at least one prominent politician (or failing that, party) had taken its money.
Then, from somewhere else in my viral empire, I’d ask a question. I’d plant it somewhere in the comments following a post about something else. It would be an innocuous question. “Where’s the money coming from?” I’d ask. “Have you noticed, that title seems to have a lot of influence?” I’d add, and with any luck, somebody else would come up with, “Who owns that title?” to complete the set.
My question would be aimed at whichever of the two parties was in the ascendant at the time. The words “undue political influence” and “billionaire-owned media” would insinuate themselves into the national conversation at around this time. My plan would be for one of my two titles to expose the other – the sinister offshore money behind this prominent politician, et cetera – and in due course, to be exposed itself. Add key word: hypocrisy.
Memo to self.
1, Run a primer for journalists on (a) how offshore finance works and (b) where to look for clues.
2. In case nobody picks up on any of it, develop an AI-generated investigative journalist to (a) handle the investigation and (b) break the story.