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Cyberwarfare without Rules

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In June 2019, The New York Times published an article claiming that the U.S. intelligence services had carried out a cyberattack against Russia. Specifically, according to anonymous sources, Russia’s electric power grid had been the target of cyber incursions. The article caused quite a stir among experts and government officials in Russia, the United States and other countries. For example, President of the United States Donald Trump accused the journalists responsible for the article of treason, although the same article alleges that National Security Council representatives “had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’ reporting.” At the 10th International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation Sergei Naryshkin said that the Russian security services were aware of planned cyberattacks and informed the relevant authorities in a timely manner. The question of the likelihood of cyberattacks being carried out on critical infrastructure was even put to President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during a live Q&A on Russian television, to which he responded: “As to the operation of our critical infrastructure, including power and other areas, we must certainly think about how to protect ourselves from any cyberattacks, from any negative impact. We are not only contemplating this, but also addressing it.”

It is still unclear whether or not the New York Times article is even telling the truth. Does it disclose sensitive information? Or is it merely “fake” news? Nevertheless, it would be useful to consider the situation from the point of view of the security of critical infrastructure, the possibility of carrying out cyberattacks and the rules of conduct in ICT.

The Informational Security of Critical Infrastructure

Protecting critical infrastructure from malicious attacks in the ICT environment is a crucial national security task, one that all developed countries are attempting to solve in one way or another. Each country draws up their own list of facility categories and prioritizes them as they see fit. However, these lists typically include energy and water supply systems, high-risk facilities and the information infrastructure. A number of factors determine the national features of critical infrastructure protection, chief among which is the issue of ownership – that is, who owns the facilities? In Western countries, a significant part of the infrastructure belongs to, and is managed by, the private sector (up to 85 per cent in the United States, according to estimates). In some cases, this leads to the appearance of a model of interaction in which the state establishes reasonably soft rules for businesses that have to ensure their own cybersecurity. Such mechanisms do not always meet national security requirements, since, in the absence of strong government regulation, businesses may use more widespread and cost-effective – yet untested and uncertified – information security solutions. And this is simply unacceptable for critical infrastructure. At the same time, special attention should be paid to issues of improving the social responsibility of entrepreneurs while ensuring the information security of new hi-tech products. And it is not just the positions of states that are needed here, as the counter initiatives of private business and the development of public private partnership mechanisms are also important.

Critical infrastructure protection is particularly important now, at a time when the ICT environment continues to develop on a massive scale, human activities are becoming increasingly digitized and the digital economy is starting to gain a foothold. ICT forms the foundation of such technologies and phenomena as big data processing, quantum computing, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and the Internet of Things. In 2017, the global production of ICT goods and services totaled approximately 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with around 100 million people being employed in the ICT sector. According to some estimates, the Internet of Things will consist of 50 billion devices by 2020.

Russia has adopted a number of normative, regulatory and strategic planning documents that regulate the protection of critical infrastructure facilities, in particular: Main Areas of the State Policy on the Security of Automated Control Systems for Production and Technological Process of Critical Infrastructure Facilities in the Russian Federation (approved by the President of the Russian Federation on February 3, 2012 under No. 803); Presidential Decree No. 620 “On Improving the State System for Detecting, Preventing and Mitigating the Consequences of Computer Attacks on the Information Resources of the Russian Federation,” dated December 22, 2017; and Federal Law No. 187-FZ “On Information Security Protection in the Russian Federation” dated July 26, 2017.

The legislation that has been adopted formed the basis for the establishment of the State System for the Detection, Prevention and Mitigation of the Consequences of Computer Attacks (GosSOPKA). The system is comprehensive in terms of its functionality. In accordance with the Concept of the State System for the Detection, Prevention and Mitigation of the Consequences of Computer Attacks, its mandate is not only to forecast information security issues in the Russian Federation and identify signs of compute attacks, but also to organize and conduct scientific research into the development and application of tools and methods for the detection, prevention and mitigation of the consequences of computer attacks and implement measures to ensure that the personnel required for the establishment and operation of the System receive the proper training and subsequent professional development opportunities. The forces and means of detecting, preventing and mitigating the consequences of computer attacks that make up the System include the authorized units of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents (which, among other things, coordinates the activities of the Russian Federation’s Critical Information Infrastructure [CII]), and subdivisions and officials of CII facilities that are involved in activities to detect, prevent and mitigate the consequences of computer attacks and respond to computer incidents. At the same time, GosSOPKA centers that have been set up at CII facilities (including those that are privately owned) are combined into a single hierarchical structure by department and territory.

We can judge the effectiveness of GosSOPKA’s work by the data presented at regular briefings of the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents. Thus, in 2017, a total of 2.4 billion attacks on critical information infrastructure were recorded in 2017, with that number rising to 4 billion in 2018. During the latest briefing on June 27, 2019, that is, after The New York Times article had been published, Deputy Director of the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents Nikolai Murashov noted: “An analysis of the information received by GosSOPKA shows that the majority of attacks aim to steal information. Criminals primarily target information about Russian defense, nuclear, energy and missile engineering technologies, as well as information from public administration systems. At the same time, “attacks on Russian information resources typically go through control centers [botnets] that are located in the European Union or the United States.”

The Capabilities of the United States and the Reality of the Attacks

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that, instead of developing international cooperation on the safe use of the ICT environment, the United States significantly increased its potential for destructive cyber operations in recent years. This was reflected above all in the elevation of the United States Cyber Command and the adoption of the relevant directive in 2018, which simplified the process of greenlighting cyber operations significantly. One extremely important document is the current National Defense Authorization Act, [ ] which confirms the military’s authority to conduct so-called “clandestine” activities.

At the same time, such activities and operations are carried out in order to prepare the environment, conduct information operations, demonstrate the power, and as a deterrent. By “prepare the environment,” we clearly mean the search for vulnerabilities in the computer systems and networks of the alleged enemy and/or introduce resident malware.

It is common knowledge that the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which started to take shape back in 2008 in accordance with National Security Presidential Directive 54 (NSPD-54), has been operating in the United States for quite a while now. The purpose of the Process is to examine new ICT vulnerabilities that are not known to the general public and make appropriate decisions regarding their use. Accordingly, the decision can be made to either inform all interested parties or conceal the information in the event that the vulnerability that has been detected could be used for surveillance, law enforcement or national security purposes. Another seminal document in this Process is the “Joint Plan for the Coordination and Application of Offensive Capabilities to Defend U.S. Information Systems.” We can conclude that, taken together, these documents aim to create mechanisms at the state level for searching, analyzing and selecting vulnerabilities, which are effectively the components of cyberweapons.

At critically important enterprises, ICT systems can be used that in one form or another harness commercially available mass-produced (so-called “off the shelf”) components. The vulnerabilities of such components have been studied in greater deal, which is why cyberattacks are more likely to target them. What is more, we cannot rule out the possibility that undocumented functions (so-called “bookmarks”) may be present in off the shelf components. Moreover, this may even occur without the consent of the manufacturer. The United States Intelligence Community, specifically the National Security Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations has developed an entire catalog of hardware and software back doors that the Office can use to access servers, work stations, telephone lines and industrial process control systems.

Taking all this into account, we can argue that right now not only does the United States have the power, means, normative and regulatory support, but also the political will to actively use destructive ICT capabilities. In this regard, we should note that all of the United States’ current strategic planning documents name Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as its main opponents, and these countries are likely to be the targets of any cyberattacks. National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton confirmed as much at a conference held by The Wall Street Journal this past June (just a few days before The New York Times published its article). Among other things, he noted that “The purpose [of carrying out cyber-offensives]… is to say to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyber operations against us, ‘you will pay the price.’” This is why President Trump decided not to respond with force when tensions between the United States and Iran escalated after the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defense Force shot down a U.S. drone. Instead, according to media reports, the United States Cyber Command carried out a cyberattack against Iranian units that were allegedly involved in the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman the previous week, even though the United States provided no evidence to support its claim.

Cyberattacks and International Law

The legitimacy of the attack, like many others, is questionable. Similarly, international legal proceedings have yet to be launched against the United States in connection with the cyberattacks on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, and it is unlikely that any action will ever be taken. Unfortunately, instead of carrying out the proper investigations into such incidents, the United States and its allies resort to the mechanism of publicly naming the culprit instead of any real evidence that a state has committed malicious actions. In accordance with the new U.S. strategies, it can apply all available levers of influence on these countries, from economic sanctions to cyberattacks.

At the same time, the international community already has a certain constructive basis for ensuring peaceful coexistence in the ICT environment, including the protection of critical infrastructure. We are talking primarily about the voluntary and non-binding norms, rules and principles of the responsible behavior of states that were developed in 2015 by the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (UN GGE) and presented in the corresponding report. Representatives from the United States were involved in the work of this Group and endorsed the adoption of the report. Several standards proposed by the GGE directly address the problem of ensuring the safety of critical infrastructure facilities. Item f) says that “A State should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public.” Item g) calls upon states to take appropriate measures to protect their critical infrastructure from ICT threats. Finally, item h) says that “States should also respond to appropriate requests to mitigate malicious ICT activity aimed at the critical infrastructure of another State emanating from their territory, taking into account due regard for sovereignty.” The latest U.S. strategies repeatedly stress the necessity of promoting and implementing the norms and principles put forward by the GGE in any way possible. The incursion into Russia’s electric power grid, if it did indeed take place, is a gross violation on the part of the United States of the rules that it helped develop in the first place. Moreover, the ICT4Peace Foundation stated in an open message that civilian power grids are not legitimate military targets, which indicates that this is a violation of the provisions of international humanitarian law.

The media frequently talks about cyber countermeasures, which are primarily used to send “signals” to potential adversaries and let them know that the United States is aware of malicious activity being carried out. The goal is to deter opponents and increase stability. It is clear that “signals” sent by way of an attack on civilian facilities can only lead to escalation. One of the ideas that forms the basis of the new cyber strategy of the United States is to achieve peace through power. But this peace, where the norms and rules apply to some countries but not others, will be neither stable nor free.

Critical structure protection is in many ways a national task. At the same time, there are a number of problems that can only be solved at the international level. It seems that right now the only productive way to tackle these problems is to develop mechanisms for introducing and implementing the relevant norms, rules, and principles of the responsible behavior of states – rules that will be common for all.

From our partner RIAC

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How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism

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The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.

4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.

This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.

Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.

The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.

Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth.  Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.

What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?

4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.

The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.

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New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan

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ISKP Uzbek Jihadist

Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.

Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.

Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.

ISIS collage dedicated to rocket attack on Uzbek Termez

The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.

Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.

ISKP Threat to Central Asia

Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.

ISKP Uzbek nasheed performer Asadulloh Urganchiy

The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.

Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”

The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.

Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.

Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.

On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.

Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.

These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.

Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.

Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists

Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.

In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.

Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.

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How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.

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