The latest weapon in cyber-warfare would appear to be fake news, propaganda and selective release of hacked confidential data, with Truth the victim - but it's hardly a new tactic.  

During the first Gulf War back in 1990/91 I was horrified to see a news report on Bahrain TV about the military hovercraft landing practice along the Saudi Arabian coastline, in preparation for the Kuwait invasion, being disrupted by storms and rough sea conditions – accompanied by extensive video of the practice landings.  

Who let them film that? Surely it allows Saddam to prepare? Or so I thought. Sure enough the beaches and coast of Kuwait quickly became minefields with obstructions to rip the hovercraft skirts. But in those pre-Google Earth days Saddam did not have satellite images and all the Kuwait assault preparations were a distraction from the main force crossing the deserts of Saudi Arabia hundreds of kilometres west of the Gulf, heading straight for Baghdad. The feint worked (as it happened, so did the ‘diversionary' direct assault) and the Baghdad-bound tanks found little resistance from what was trumpeted at the time as the world's fourth largest army.

In military circles it's now a cliché to quote Sun Tzu's maxim from his 6th Century BC work, The Art of War, noting that, “All warfare is based on deception.”  But it's a cliché because it's true.

The advice continues that, “When engaged in warfare, every large deception you make is built on every smaller deception you have already made.”

Unfortunately it sounds like Sun Tzu is advising the phishers when he says, “Hold out baits to entice the enemy.” 

But it's classic propaganda, equally applicable to nation states or criminals when Sun Tzu's advice is simply to, “Show your opponent what he wishes to see, and he decides, purely by himself, that it is so; in this way, you deceive without ever having spoken a word to him, without ever having ‘lied' in the conventional sense. You have assisted him in lying to himself .”

And the cause of this success: “...purely due to recognising that an army is led by a fallible human being.”

So it's back to people once again. Our propensity to believe what we want to believe is incredible.  I mean, literally, not believable. We will refuse to accept facts that do not fit in with our own worldview – and that applies equally to those politically on the left or the right.  A recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Nothing but the truth, looked at Post-truth – described as a liberal label for its loss of control.

Post-truth, we can object to the experts because the facts don't matter, it's all about what we feel.

Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College, explained in the programme that not only were most people vulnerable to believing false claims that fitted their bias, but that they ”would believe even more strongly when confronted with facts that contradicted their view – the backfire effect. [When listening to facts that contradict their views] they will be thinking of counter arguments and so become more entrenched in their own view. If a fact challenges how we see the world, we just don't believe it.”

Dan Kahan, professor of law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School, presented study participants with the same set of statistics, one allegedly showing the use of a skin cream that failed to reduce a rash and the other showing people's access to guns did not lead to an increase in crime. The fact that the cream had a perverse effect was understood equally among social conservatives and liberals. Using the same stats applied to gun control, Democrats did all they could to resist the conclusion that there was no increase in crime (which there wasn't), while Republicans resisted any stats showing guns had a harmful effect. Each interrogated the evidence until it told them what they wanted to hear.

So – believe what you want to believe, vote how you want to vote – but don't allow your bias to ignore the facts or you are priming yourself to be deceived.

And that's not an asset for someone tasked with protecting our security.