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‘Invisible Force’ graphic novel shows the possible future of cyber warfare

The Army Cyber Institute’s new graphic novel “Invisible Force” suggests that advanced technology such as doctored videos and artificial intelligence could be weaponized by foreign adversaries in the near future.

“Invisible Force” takes place in the year 2030, when a foreign adversary, in this case the fictional nation of Donovia, uses artificial intelligence to undermine the United Nations’ response to a refugee crisis. Refugees fled from Africa to another fictional European nation of Atropia where they are held in a camp, which soon becomes the epicenter of a new strain of a virus.

Donovia works to break down trust between each stakeholder in the story — the public, refugees, military and government — until the truth is so distorted that no party has a clear idea of what is real and what is not. Donovia spreads misinformation that vaccines for the virus are poisoned and create deepfake videos depicting situations that did not actually happen.

“Trust is not something that you can take for granted,” Maj. Jessica Dawson, an assistant professor at the Army Cyber Institute who advised the “Invisible Force” project, said. “It requires work and it requires repair and it requires constant maintenance.”

Dawson said the story’s creators used threatcasting, a process designed to understand and prepare for future risks, to imagine what a future with cyber security issues might look like. In partnership with Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab, the Army Cyber Institute created this graphic novel as a “science fiction prototype,” which is a fictional story based on research of projected technological and cultural trends, according to the novel.

Dawson said the team working on the graphic novel could “easily see” a scenario like the one portrayed in “Invisible Force” actually happening in 10 years, along with other similar technology-related scenarios. Deepfake videos are one of the several abuses of technology that Donovia uses in the novel to confuse the public and further erode trust.

This story shows how technology-fueled disinformation and fear can lead to real violence. In its cyber attacks, Donovia manages to create unrest in Atropia. The deepfake videos, such as one showing a bomb in Atropia’s capital, spread on social media and prompted public outcries against the government and its allies, including the United States.

“The ability to create good deepfakes that are going to be able to fool the national security apparatus, those are going to require time to develop,” Dawson said. “There’s a lot of ways in which reality is manipulated right now without going into full-blown deepfakes.”

The key to Donovia’s manipulation is how it uses the post-truth problem, which creates a gray area between fact and fiction. Donovia spreads the misinformation that the virus vaccines are poisoned — which is not true — but the nation did hack into the refrigerated vans holding the vaccines and raised the temperature, thus spoiling the vaccines and making the disinformation about the poison seem true.

In the U.S., the military’s involvement in Atropia becomes a subject of discussion on a clickbait news show that uses outrage from artificial intelligence bots posing as viewers to drive up traffic to the show, willingly spreading misinformation.

“One of the things we know about news and social media space is that a lie will travel further and faster than the truth will,” Dawson said. “When we think about all of the things that are like a little bit of truth wrapped in the lie, you’ve got to be able to acknowledge where the truth is and then point out the fallacies that are around it.”

Dawson said the decline of local news is one factor in the lack of trust between the public, the media and the government. A more localized approach to spreading information and checking the reliability of sources when sharing stories can help avoid more erosion of trust, she said.

“A lot of the things, the ideas and the themes, that we’re seeing in this graphic novel are happening right now, and it could happen to all of us,” Dawson said. “So (we are) really thinking through how do we defend against this? How do we make sure that we build a sense of community so that we’re not going to be as vulnerable?”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the name of the Army organization that produced the graphic novel.

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