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Decoding the Digital Age: Carl Miller on conspiracies and information warfare

Wed 28 Feb 2024

Image of Carl Miller and Rebecca Uffindell

Ahead of Big Data & AI World at ExCeL London on the 6-7 of March, we had the opportunity to speak with Carl Miller, Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media.

As Carl prepares to share his insights at the conference in March, we delve into the pivotal moments and publications that have shaped his exploration of the digital sphere and its impact on society.

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Exploring the Depths of Conspiracy Theories

In 2009, Carl embarked on his first foray into the research world with the publication ‘The Power of Unreason‘. The written work focused on the intricate relationship between conspiracy theories and extremism.

“Unfortunately, all the conspiracy theorists thought what I was arguing was, all conspiracy theorists are terrorists,” Carl recounted.

This period was marked by intense engagement with the conspiracy theory community, particularly those associated with the 9/11 truth movement in London.

“We were somewhat besieged … Lots of anger, lots of outrage, quite a lot of misunderstanding,” Carl explained, highlighting the passionate responses his research elicited.

Yet, it was within this tumultuous environment that Carl’s interest in the transformative power of the Internet began to crystallise.

As social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were just beginning to emerge as societal forces, Carl observed the pivotal role they played in facilitating the spread and mobilisation of conspiracy theories.

“Back then, in 2009, we really didn’t appreciate … how important the Internet was in the formation of these movements,” he noted, reflecting on the early days of digital community building on forums such as David Icke’s.

This revelation marked a turning point in Carl’s research career, shifting his focus from the study of radicalisation and violent extremism to a broader fascination with the impact of digital technology on society.

The Internet, once a fledgling network of interconnected communities, was rapidly evolving into a potent catalyst for social mobilisation and ideological dissemination.

Carl’s work in unearthing the relationship between conspiracy theories and extremism served as a precursor to his lifelong pursuit of understanding the digital age’s profound effects on human beliefs, behaviors, and societal structures.

The Emergence of Social Media Intelligence

The journey into the depths of digital sociology gained momentum for Carl Miller between 2012 and 2013, a time when he played a pivotal role in advocating for the nuanced study of social media’s vast datasets.

This period was marked by the publication of ‘#Intelligence‘, a work that underscored the significance of social media as a fertile ground for both national security research and broader sociological studies. This publication was instrumental in highlighting the untapped potential of social media data, advocating for its ethical and responsible analysis.

Carl’s insights during this time reflected a burgeoning awareness of the digital world’s complexity and its implications for both society and individual privacy.

“We were beginning to understand that social media wasn’t just a platform for sharing photos and thoughts, but a goldmine of data that, if analysed responsibly, could yield invaluable insights into human behavior and societal trends,” Carl explained.

It was during this exploratory phase that Carl contributed significantly to the discourse on Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT), emphasising the critical need for governments and researchers to harness social media insights ethically.

“The digital age has bestowed upon us an unprecedented scale of data, presenting both an opportunity and a responsibility. SOCMINT represents our attempt to navigate this new terrain, ensuring that our pursuit of knowledge does not come at the expense of the very subjects we study,” Carl remarked.

‘#Intelligence’ acted as a blueprint for understanding the intricate dance between digital data and societal dynamics. Carl stressed the importance of bridging the gap between the nascent field of digital data analysis and the established practices of intelligence gathering and research.

“As we venture into this uncharted territory, it is imperative that we anchor our explorations in ethical considerations, ensuring that our quest for insights does not trample upon the rights and dignities of individuals,” he noted.

This publication marked a significant milestone in Carl’s career, laying the groundwork for a new era of digital exploration. By introducing the concept of SOCMINT, Carl illuminated the path for future researchers and policymakers, advocating for a balanced approach that respects both the potential and the pitfalls of social media data.

“Our journey into the digital world is fraught with challenges, but it is also replete with opportunities. As we chart our course through this vast ocean of data, let us be guided by the stars of ethics and responsibility,” Carl concluded, encapsulating the spirit of ‘#Intelligence’ and its enduring legacy in the field of digital sociology.

‘The Death of the Gods’ and the Redistribution of Power

In 2018, Carl Miller’s insightful exploration reached a new peak with the publication of ‘The Death of the Gods’, a profound examination of how digital technology is revolutionising the distribution and dynamics of power in modern society.

This work signified a pivotal moment in Carl’s career, representing a shift from a data-centric approach to a more nuanced understanding of the human elements driving these transformations.

Carl embarked on a global odyssey to uncover the stories of individuals at the vanguard of this digital revolution. From the depths of online communities to the frontlines of cybercrime, Carl sought to understand how power, traditionally held by institutions and states, is being disseminated across the digital landscape.

“I really wanted to learn how to write about people,” Carl reflected, emphasising his intention to move beyond numbers and statistics to capture the essence of human experience in the digital age.

Through his journey, Carl encountered a diverse array of digital pioneers: hackers who find delight not in the act of breaking the law but in demonstrating their mastery over the digital domain; citizen journalists whose influence has skyrocketed from comment sections to the front pages of major newspapers; and activists who have leveraged online platforms to orchestrate societal change.

Each story is a testament to the unpredictable and often chaotic ways in which power is being redefined.

“The digital democrats of Taiwan went from protesting outside of the parliament to one of them becoming the Digital Minister of Taiwan,” said Miller.

This particular narrative illustrates the transformative potential of digital technology, not just as a tool for dissent but as a pathway to governance and societal leadership. Carl’s encounters reveal a world where the barriers to power are not just being lowered but are being rewritten entirely.

Carl remains optimistic about the potential for positive change, emphasising the liberation and opportunities that come with the digital redistribution of power.

Anticipating the Future of Information Warfare

In the rapidly evolving landscape of digital technology, the upcoming 2024 elections stand as a pivotal moment, with Carl Miller at the forefront of analysing the complex interplay between technology and politics.

As he prepares to share his expertise at Big Data & AI World, Carl’s insights into information warfare offer a critical perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

“We’ve seen conspiracy theory-ism and conspiracy theorists become far more mainstream,” Carl observes, highlighting the shift of such narratives from the fringes to the center of political discourse.

Carl noted the transformative power of AI and other technologies in shaping public opinion and influencing electoral outcomes.

“You’ve got AI and a series of new and very powerful technologies,” he notes, underscoring the dual role of these advancements as both tools for engagement and weapons for manipulation.

The integration of AI into the fabric of information warfare marks a significant departure from traditional methods of influence, enabling unprecedented levels of personalisation and targeting in political campaigns.

The discussion extends to the ethical and regulatory challenges posed by these developments. Carl points out the difficulty platforms face in detecting Generative AI content, which complicates efforts to safeguard the integrity of information spaces.

Furthermore, Carl delved into the nuanced strategies employed in information warfare, suggesting that the “weaponisation of friendship” through AI-facilitated communication poses a more insidious threat than the mere dissemination of fake content.

“The game-changing difference is that suddenly now I can use AI to bring you and 10,000 other people into some kind of semi-automated continuous conversation with me,” Carl said, revealing the potential for such tactics to subtly shape perceptions and behaviors without overt detection.

As Carl prepares to address the audience at Big Data & AI World, his session titled ‘Information Manipulation in the Year of Elections’ promises to be an enlightening exploration of these issues.

Carl aims to unpack the intricate dynamics of information warfare, offering a glimpse into how digital technologies are being harnessed to influence electoral processes and public discourse.

“We’ll be a lot more equipped at the end of this year, I think, to know how they all glued together,” Carl asserts, anticipating a deeper understanding of the intersection between technology, politics, and society as we navigate through the election cycle and beyond.

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