The link between cybersecurity, extremist threat and misinformation online in Aotearoa

Cybersecurity threats come in many different forms. While things like malware, bugs and phishing attacks can cause serious harm in their own right, when coupled with threat and misinformation it can often lead devestating impacts.

These kinds of threats are formed in various ways and evade cybersecurity and personal cyber safety measures with ease. Long story short, it’s often the case that misinformation, threat and extremism link closely to cybersecurity issues and cyber harm.

Hate speech, threat and extremism are issues that have caused significant problems in Aotearoa, and the root of much of it is unfortunately active in an online environment. Threat actors with sinister agendas covertly break down cybersecurity and threat prevention barriers to promote their own unique brand of hate and extremism, using a variety of tools and systems to cause widespread harm. 

It is often the case that much of the harm is initiated in dark corners of the internet, blocked by complex coding and security technology. It can also be initiated on social media, with large companies struggling to police and monitor with efficient legal security measures. Threat actors hide behind fake profiles, and even with the strongest regulations and cybersecurity and safety measures, misinformation can break down these walls in an instant.

Threat and misinformation come in a variety of forms. Concerning statistics from InternetNZ show that 58% of New Zealanders – up from 42% last year – are either ‘extremely concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about online conspiracy theories. Kiwi’s general level of concern about misinformation has also dramatically risen this year, with 66% of New Zealanders being either extremely or very concerned that information is misleading or wrong. The number of people who said they were extremely or very concerned about hate speech online has also jumped from 58% to 65%.

Research like this highlights that we need solid cyber safety and security measures in place to prevent long-lasting damage. 

“InternetNZ wants to see an Internet where everyone in Aotearoa can fully participate online. Scams, cybersecurity risks, and abusive behaviours online are all linked in that they make it harder for people in our community to be safe,” says InternetNZ senior policy advisor James Ting-Edwards.

“It is vital that work to address these issues starts by listening to the people most affected by abusive behaviours online, whether these are threats to the security of people’s computers and bank accounts, or threats to their personal safety and their ability to go online without facing harassment.”

He says there needs to be an extended community effort to prevent threatening behaviour, and laws and technologies can only do so much.

“Governments and online services are well aware of these issues, but the gap we see is a need for more work to include community voices in developing solutions,” he says.

“This is not just about laws and technologies, it’s about how communities in Aotearoa get a voice in the online environments we participate in.”

Dr Ethan R. Plaut from the University of Auckland reinforced that hate speech and threat should be perceived as a matter of our national security, and it is an increasingly prevalent issue worldwide.

“Online hate speech is a matter of national security in multiple different ways,” he says.

“This is clearly true in the sense that foreign actors may be involved in the creation and circulation of hateful misinformation, and in the sense that domestic online extremism has been implicated in the radicalisation of people involved in violent attacks, including here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“These issues also intersect in online attacks against people doing advocacy for Māori, women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ and other vulnerable communities, who are vulnerable to doxxing, threats, and other forms of online attacks.”

A prominent example of these types of threats in action can be seen both before and after the devastating Christchurch terror attacks in 2019. 

The perpetrator was highly active in a covert online environment, operating to promote hate and infiltrating various social media platforms to spread it. The terrorist also released a manifesto and live-streamed his actions, causing widespread significant harm. CERT NZ reported a variety of issues in the wake of the tragedy, saying that scammers and attackers were using the tragic event as an opportunity to perform targeted online cyber attacks against New Zealanders. Some of these included:

  • Phishing emails containing links to fake online banking logins. These emails also contained fraudulent bank accounts where victims could make donations for the Christchurch tragedy.
  • The sharing of malicious video files on compromised websites or on social media. 
  • A video file containing footage related to the attack had malware embedded in it, and this malicious file is being shared online. (This could further promote hate and threat)
  • Attackers changing New Zealand websites to spread political messages about the Christchurch tragedy. (This was also prevalent on social media)
  • New Zealand websites receiving threats of denial-of-service attacks, which would take them offline.

So it’s clear that cybersecurity and safety intersect with hate speech and threat, so what can be done to help prevent serious issues in the future?

While Netsafe, CERT NZ and other organisations play a key advisory role in helping inform the public of threats and stop the spread of misinformation here in Aotearoa, there is also a collective agreement in place that aims to tackle these issues at the source. The Christchurch Call was formed in Paris on May 15 2019, and acted as a collective agreement from countries around the world aiming to create a safer online environment that stops hate, threat and misinformation in its tracks.

Consisting of over 50 countries and delegations worldwide, the Paris and New Zealand initiated agreement found that outlines collective, voluntary commitments from Governments and online service providers that aim to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online and to prevent the abuse of the internet as occurred in and after the Christchurch attacks. 

The agreement highlights five key points that governments should collectively aim to achieve, with topics ranging from using law and regulation, to supporting frameworks for companies in order to combat hate and abuse online.

While some of the points apply directly to broadcast media, when examining ones relating to cyber safety and security the framework advises:

  • Awareness-raising and capacity-building activities aimed at smaller online service providers.
  • Development of industry standards or voluntary frameworks.
  • Regulatory or policy measures consistent with a free, open and secure internet and international human rights law.

Social media giants such as Meta, Twitter, Google and YouTube are some of the many organisations that have pledged support to the agreement; however it may take years for them to fully implement secure systems and technologies worldwide.

As with many things online, cybersecurity and safety remain distinctly human issues and can often only be adequately solved with a widespread community effort. 

As governments worldwide struggle with increasing threat, misinformation and extremism, there is hope that leadership shown through agreements like the Christchurch Call can promote safer online communities for everyone.

[email protected] (Mitchell Hageman)

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