The city at dawn
Leo Rolé and eleven other Algorithmologists were drinking coffee or dragging on their vapor pipes under the dim amber lights of their city’s Algoritorium. Through the window looking out over the city, only a few apartments’ lights were starting to twinkle awake. In the distance, Leo could just see his own house’s kitchen window light up. His husband would be out there pouring his cup of coffee that moment.
As more people woke up and logged on, the monitors at the front of the room started to update. A tangle of lines splayed across the screen started to twitch and undulate. It’s connections flickered different colors as news of the events of the morning started to spread.
Leo returned to his seat at the round table in the center of the room as he and the Algorithmologists eased into their work. As information threats went, this one seemed like it would be less urgent. This was the kind of thing that had a well-established pattern, and it happened at a time of night that meant not everyone would hear the news at once. All the information diagnostics were looking normal as Leo scanned the neighborhood message boards.
Next to him, Ione Proudfoot was monitoring the coverage from the global media sources. The news was about an attack on Refugio, one of the first and largest refugee outpost in the International Zone of Antarctica. Small bands of the paramilitary group EcoFascist Seed had been frequenting the waters of the South Sea where patrols by the peacekeepers were harder to maintain. Sometimes in search of food they’d come ashore on the lush green banks of Antarctica, and when they felt it was safe, they’d often try to attack the most vulnerable climate refugee cities established there. Now, news sources were starting to release their coverage of the attacks.
“Looks like straight reporting for now,” Ione said, “no bullshit.”
“Great,” Leo replied, his eyes glancing around his screen as he flipped between message boards, “there’s still not much locally, but what I do see looks pretty benign.”
“Hopefully it’s a lighter day,” Ione said. She stood up and arched her back to stretch. “I could hardly get to sleep after putting out last night’s fire.”
Ione started pacing up and down behind her desk. Leo nodded approvingly. The previous night, an international conference in their city had been interrupted by protesters. Ione had been put in charge of making sure the personal details of the protesters weren’t being shared.
The Algorithmologists were each selected for a one month term analyzing media sources to help monitor public spaces online and make sure there wasn’t undo influence from nefarious parties. They worked a bit like a jury, acting under guidance of the Department of Information Health, to make sure the public was getting legitimate and balanced news. They didn’t censor information, just monitor and counteract the force of algorithms and the “influencers-for-hire” when they started to over-amplify certain narratives.
The society-wide media systems had become too unwieldy and had failed to deter misinformation and dangerous conspiracies too many times. To deal with this, the Algorithmologists were established across cities around the world to help guide the conversation online. They prevented the power of money and vested interests from having too much influence on people’s minds.
Leo was more than 3 weeks in. He’d only need to get to next Sunday. Ione was only on her 3rd day. Leo certainly didn’t envy her. The learning curve was steep in those first few days, and the pressure to prevent another gate level controversy was intense.
Fortunately, today’s headline grabbing news of the attack on Refugio didn’t seem like it would be too much trouble.
Red letter day
From the corner of his eye, Leo saw a few red letters flash across Ione’s screen. He felt a sudden wave of nervous nausea in his stomach. Ione froze in the middle of a side stretch she’d been doing behind her seat.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she mumbled. The red letters kept popping up. A moment later, red letters were flashing on Leo’s screen too.
“Well shit,” Leo said, “something’s happening.”
“Alright folks,” Ione yelled loud enough for everyone to hear, “looks like we have a botnet on this one.”
The tangle of lines on the screen at the front of the room started to pulse in synchrony. A flurry of fingers began drumming the keyboards around the room. A few staccato voices punctuated the hum of the IMUNE System servers firing up.
“Looks like it’s targeting Spanish speakers.”
“Origin appears to be South America.”
“The accounts in the net are all up to 1 year old.”
“This seems like conspiracy type 1, subtype a.”
“Somebody wake up a judge, we’re gonna need help on this.”
“I’d like everyone to welcome Dr. Marbleseed,” one of the Chief Algorithmologists opened the door as the rest of the team rose from their seats.
A thin-framed older woman inched her way into the room, holding her cane and shaking her head with amusement. “Don’t stand up on my account,” she said, “you’ve all got work to do.”
Everyone in the room sheepishly returned to their seats. Dr Josephine Marbleseed was one of the most prolific scientists of Algorithmology—and not just in their city or the country, but on the whole planet. She’d been in the first generation helping found the craft almost 70 years prior. The science was intractible back then. Without a baseline, the misinformation and distrust on the internet had proven impossible to regulate. Politics, opinion, science, propaganda all stirred together in a deafening chaos, while any attempt to rein in the beast was filtered through the same polarizing lenses. It would have been impossible if the solar flare hadn’t taken it all down for a few months. That was the only thing that allowed people to get a grip on themselves and pick up the pieces of their tattered society. The Algorithmologists were developed to prevent that from happening again when the internet came back online.
“I saw the story on the tram,” Marbleseed continued, “looks like the IMUNE System already took down the botnet. So what do you need me for?”
The 3 Chief Algorithmologists were all looking down at the floor letting the awkward silence hang in the room.
Ione cleared her throat. “It appears that story is already organically spreading now,” she said, meaning that the story was spreading amongst real accounts, “we’re looking to shut down the accounts that are spreading the false story.”
Dr Marbleseed raised her eyebrow. “Oh really,” she said, “and what exactly is the false story?”
Leo was standing next to the projected map at the front of the room.
“You can see that this same story started being told across all of these global news sources all within 5 minutes.”
Dr Marbleseed stared silently without allowing even an ounce of her opinion to show through. Leo tried to speak again, but found himself unable to continue.
“The story is,” Ione jumped in, “that the attacks were not from EcoFascist Seed, but were a coordinated campaign from the South Sea Peacekeepers in the area.”
“So,” Marbleseed continued, “they’re trying to get us to believe that the International Protective Force has turned on those whom it’s meant to protect.”
Serious nods of agreement swept across the room.
“And how do we know that’s not true?”
“The story has already been shut down in 72% of cities in our region,” said a voice from behind Leo.
“Inadmissible,” Dr Marbleseed responded. She was now standing at the front of the room. Leo and the others had turned their seats to face her, lobbing questions at her.
There had been misteps and overreach in the early days. Marbleseed had lived though it. Even the best and most necessary technology has the potential for corruption, and in the early days of Algorithmology, Marbleseed was there when her work became a tool of oppression.
Marbleseed asked her own questions carefully. “Look at the timing of the verified bot network’s posts,” she said, pointing to a graph in the wall behind her, “were they the first accounts of the events?”
Leo was beginning to understand. It was possible that the stories were true, and the attacks on Refugio really were the peacekeepers. There were conflicting accounts, and no one knew what was true on the ground. He leaned over to Ione.
“When you think about it, “ Leo said, “the Protective Force would have a huge advantage here.”
Ione looked puzzled.
“They know exactly how the IMUNE System would respond in this scenario.”
The IMUNE System stood for Information Management Under Nefarious Engagement and worked as an automated software toolkit to detect and filter posts. It’d been in use for decades now, detecting botnets, dark advertisements, and other sources of targeted misinformation. The IMUNE System was a conservative system, operating as a first pass before the Algorithmologists got to it.
“So you actually believe that the peacekeepers have gone rogue?” Ione asked.
“Not necessarily,” Leo said, “but Dr Marbleseed’s point is just that we don’t really know.”
Ione wrinkled her brow and turned back to face the front.
“The ultimate decision is up to you,” Dr Marbleseed said solemnly, “there’s nothing more I can offer than advice.”
Within two days it was clear what was happening. The peacekeepers had undertaken a military coup to cut off the antarctic continent. Their goal had been to set up their own authoritarian slave state away from the democratic principles that governed the rest of the world. At first it had been difficult to believe, but as more and more evidence piled up, the truth became obvious.
Their plan directly relied on the IMUNE System falsely detecting the conspiracy as misinformation. And had their botnet come online just a few minutes earlier, they probably would have pulled it off.
At their worst point, 94% of Algorithmologosts were suppressing the true account, but a few held out.
On the balcony outside their apartment Leo and his husband each had a glass in hand, with a half empty bottle of scotch on the table between them.
“I honestly don’t know what would have happened without Dr Marbleseed there,” Leo said, “we were so close to pulling the plug.”
Leo’s husband took a drink and stared over the balcony, looking shocked at the story his had husband just told him.
“It’s all so fragile.”