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When I first went to university at the end of the 1960s (yes, I really am that old, though not quite old enough to be of that generation that only remembers that decade through a haze of psychedelic phenomena), my choice of social sciences was regarded as somewhat fluffy. It was the age of "the white heat of technology" (a phrase credited to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, though it’s not exactly what he said): science and engineering students were going to be the leading architects of society (nerdy image notwithstanding), art school was the accepted jumping-off point for a career in rock and roll, and social mechanisms were popularly perceived as being of interest only to academics and trainee social workers.
In fact, popular opinion was somewhat behind the curve. Vance Packard’s 1957 book "The Hidden Persuaders" had already let the genie out of the bottle by opening the eyes of his audience to the way that psychological and emotional processes were already being used by businessmen and politicians to sell products and image through the media. While an unimaginative comedian can still get a safe laugh by referring to a degree in media studies as a degree in MTV or "American Idol" or "Grey’s Anatomy", that particular discipline has been influenced by a wide range of studies: urban sociology, propaganda studies, and media effects studies, for example. There’s a lot more to this field than predicting whether House and Cuddy will ever get it on. ;-)
So I’m not terribly surprised to see MSN describing Salford University’s Masters Degree in Social Media as an "MA in Facebook and Twitter," or making sarcastic (but amusing) comments about TechRadar’s Doctorate in YouTube and 140-character dissertations. And MSN is right to see this as a course that’s likely to appeal to PR and marketing people. That’s important. You don’t often see a product in any market that’s so clearly ahead of the pack that it doesn’t need to be properly marketed, and social networking/interactive technologies have become important marketing tools as well as means of acquiring and sharing other information.
Perhaps we’re all missing a point, though. MSN quoted Professor Ben Light, the course leader, as saying "knowledge of high quality production and communication techniques will create powerful campaigns – whether for commercial or social reasons." He’s clearly thinking of social media as a "a way of doing social good", perhaps remembering the days when "social engineering" had a constructive, socially responsible meaning. But legitimate marketing, education, social engineering in the pre-hacking sense of social improvement: they’re only half the story. Botherders, hackers, spammers, hoaxers, conmen, phishers: knowingly or not, they use many of the same techniques.
I don’t, of course, suggest that everyone in the security industry should take a year or two off to do a higher degree in social media, still less that everyone should. But everyone with an interest in security or with something to lose from not having an interest in security needs to have some idea of what psychological buttons the bad guys are trying to push. That’s a theme I’ve ranted on many times before (and I’ve recently been exploring it again in a couple of papers for the Virus Bulletin conference in September), but I think perhaps it’s one I’ll be returning to here, sooner rather than later.
David Harley BA CISSP FBCS CITP
Director of Malware Intelligence
Author David Harley, ESET