Beware of Bogons’!

At the end of this post are links to a piece of recent research on the spread of news and information sites that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software” (see NewsGuard below) and (for people in a hurry) a Guardian newspaper article summary of the research. Seeing this research brought to mind an idea from one of my favourite authors, Neal Stephenson; welcome to a world of bogons’!

If you’ve heard of the metaverse’ then you have already encountered the work of Neal Stephenson, who is credited with inventing the term.

Bogon is another Stephenson-coined term and refers to subtly incorrect versions of genuine documents/information created for nefarious purposes, these generally pollute the information landscape and make knowing what and who trust more difficult than it should be; the quoted passage below, from Stephenson’s 2008 novel Anathem’, explains, but before you read it I’ll explain who is talking and the weird terminology they use.

My copy of ‘Anathem’My copy of ‘Anathem’

The action of Anathem takes place in a rather Earth-like world where there is, at the time the story is set, a separation of pure/theoretical’ intellectual activity from technology, and from the world of politics and economics. Thus, the intellectuals’ are poorly informed with relations to the workings of practical technologies such as computing, this knowledge is provided for them as necessary by a specialised class of technologists known as the Ita’ (IT Assistants?… nobody remembers).

The first speaker, Sammann, is an Ita’, he is explaining the history of the Reticulum’ or Ret’ - our Internet - to a group of intellectuals’. A syndev’ (syntactical device) is a computer, praxis’ is technology, the rest you can work out for yourself…

Early in the Reticulum — thousands of years ago — it became almost useless because it was cluttered with faulty, obsolete, or downright misleading information,” Sammann said.

Crap, you once called it,” I reminded him.

Yes — a technical term. So crap filtering became important. Businesses were built around it. Some of those businesses came up with a clever plan to make more money: they poisoned the well. They began to put crap on the Reticulum deliberately, forcing people to use their products to filter that crap back out. They created syndevs whose sole purpose was to spew crap into the Reticulum. But it had to be good crap.”

What is good crap?” Arsibalt asked in a politely incredulous tone.

Well, bad crap would be an unformatted document consisting of random letters. Good crap would be a beautifully typeset, well-written document that contained a hundred correct, verifiable sentences and one that was subtly false. It’s a lot harder to generate good crap. At first they had to hire humans to churn it out. They mostly did it by taking legitimate documents and inserting errors — swapping one name for another, say. But it didn’t really take off until the military got interested.”

As a tactic for planting misinformation in the enemy’s reticules, you mean,” Osa said. This I know about. You are referring to the Artificial Inanity programs of the mid–First Millennium A.R.”

Exactly!” Sammann said. Artificial Inanity systems of enormous sophistication and power were built for exactly the purpose Fraa Osa has mentioned. In no time at all, the praxis leaked to the commercial sector and spread to the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies. Never mind. The point is that there was a sort of Dark Age on the Reticulum that lasted until my Ita forerunners were able to bring matters in hand.”

So, are Artificial Inanity systems still active in the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies?” asked Arsibalt, utterly fascinated.

The ROBE evolved into something totally different early in the Second Millennium,” Sammann said dismissively.

What did it evolve into?” Jesry asked.

No one is sure,” Sammann said. We only get hints when it finds ways to physically instantiate itself, which, fortunately, does not happen that often. But we digress. The functionality of Artificial Inanity still exists. You might say that those Ita who brought the Ret out of the Dark Age could only defeat it by co-opting it. So, to make a long story short, for every legitimate document floating around on the Reticulum, there are hundreds or thousands of bogus versions — bogons, as we call them.”

Considering this was written 15 years ago it is impressively prescient. I don’t know if we are exactly in the early years of the Reticulum’ but from the research carried out by NewsGuard and others I’m certain we have to be more on our guard for crap’ (in the technical sense 😉) and that as students, researchers and news consumers we are increasingly having to make our way through an information landscape that is ever more littered with polluting bogons’.

Original NewsGuard’ research

Guardian article

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