Using Disinformation to Cause a Blackout

Interesting paper: “How weaponizing disinformation can bring down a city’s power grid“:

Abstract: Social media has made it possible to manipulate the masses via disinformation and fake news at an unprecedented scale. This is particularly alarming from a security perspective, as humans have proven to be one of the weakest links when protecting critical infrastructure in general, and the power grid in particular. Here, we consider an attack in which an adversary attempts to manipulate the behavior of energy consumers by sending fake discount notifications encouraging them to shift their consumption into the peak-demand period. Using Greater London as a case study, we show that such disinformation can indeed lead to unwitting consumers synchronizing their energy-usage patterns, and result in blackouts on a city-scale if the grid is heavily loaded. We then conduct surveys to assess the propensity of people to follow-through on such notifications and forward them to their friends. This allows us to model how the disinformation may propagate through social networks, potentially amplifying the attack impact. These findings demonstrate that in an era when disinformation can be weaponized, system vulnerabilities arise not only from the hardware and software of critical infrastructure, but also from the behavior of the consumers.

I’m not sure the attack is practical, but it’s an interesting idea.

Posted on August 18, 2020 at 10:03 AM23 Comments


Mervyn Bickerdyke August 18, 2020 10:33 AM

Our local energy company has been trying for years to shift energy usage times by offering discounts. (of course to MINIMUM demand hours…) but people can’t be bothered to put a timer on their washer or dryer (one of the few appliances where it would work) so I doubt that many people would be willing to do it just just because it’s on facebook.

Brian August 18, 2020 11:08 AM

This would absolutely work in California. We’re having rolling blackouts this week because we have a shortage of electricity. If such a campaign hit a few hundred thousand people who were unaware of CAISO’s directive to cut usage, it could definitely bring down the grid.

Anders August 18, 2020 11:09 AM

Same thing is with “bank run” – one bank does not have enough cash to cover all the peoples savings.

When USSR dissolves, soviet Rouble lost its valuable fast,
sometime even in hours. So here in Estonia the preferred
hard currency was Finnish Mark back then.

Back then we had no commercial TV channels, only one, official
state one, ETV. We had there The Vigla Show – comedy show and
in 16. February 1991 they made a joke that looks like very official,
they made it in “breaking news” style and used a person who was known
from news, he was official news anchor. He officially announced that starting from next Monday Finnish Bank decided to withdraw from circulation the current 100 Mark bank notes and so they lose their value.

People believed and widespread panic started – everybody rushed to
exchange their 100 Mark bills or just to spend them on something.

Of course later they realized that this was a joke and the anger
was quite substantial – some key people from Vigla Show even got
death threats.

Put this into Google Translate.

So we Estonians are quite well trained regarding the hostile info-ops 🙂

Winter August 18, 2020 11:11 AM

“so I doubt that many people would be willing to do it just just because it’s on facebook.”

But couple it to lottery or give-away or some other hoax, and it might work. Say, mine Bitcoin with your airconditioner or heater.

That might work, the gullible rule the earth.

Clive Robinson August 18, 2020 12:12 PM

@ Bruce,

I’m not sure the attack is practical, but it’s an interesting idea.

Just a few weeks ago I would have agreed with you. Then a teenager got into a social network and sent out a “two bitcons for one” series of messages from various famous peoples accounts. And low and behold a few people did indeed fall for it.

Thus proving the old saying “you can fool some of the people some of the time”, but the tail end of the saying is “But not all of the people all of the time”.

Thus I suspect it will only work with a few people once or possibly twice if set up correctly.

The real problem though is not the total number of people that fall for such a trick, but the number on a vulnerable section.

A couple of decades back, a small lightning strike in South London caused a small substation to cut out which was not as such a problem. What was a problem was the “in rush” or “cold current” where devices at start up draw ten times or so their normal operating current. Thus trying to bring the substation back up caused a “cascade failure” and it’s this triggered by the in rush current thst does the damage, if proper maintainance has not been carried out.

Which brings us to the US where way to many power cables are “over head” thus vulnerable to all sorts of things like growing trees. As California found out their local supplier put profit over basic maintainance, such as cutting back natural growth. The result was fires that caused property damage to others followed shortly by legal action that the company lost and in effect went bankrupt. So rather than spend the money on proper maintainance they instead cut power every time the wind got above a breeze… Unfortunately the company was very very bad at letting people know what they were upto thus people used social media to warn others.

Thus the good citizens of Northern California are kind of set up to respond to social media, and if the story is spun right then it probably will work, especially if the attackers can also “trigger a substation to shut down” (apparently semi-auto fire into remote / isolated transformers will work).

Thus the trick as any successful con artist will tell you is not just “the tale” but most importantly “the way you tell it”…

Another Mouse August 18, 2020 2:32 PM

Here it once happened with the railways grid, one region got isolated from the rest of the main grid for maintenance.
And as we have a highly sophisticated time table, meant to enable us catching connecting trains to the max, there were a couple trains all starting at the same time…

End of the story: grid went down – on every subsequent “reboot” inrush led to the same result.

I’m not sure if they brought this segment up again before the maintenance on the interconnect was over.

echo August 18, 2020 3:40 PM

Looking at things as a system this is exactly what caused Brexit. It’s not the first time such “system crashes” happened. In fact it happens pretty much all the time in one way or another. It doesn’t differ in type only in scale.

One thing the British courts are pre-occupied with is “authorities” and “processes”. What the courts properly fail to consider is that at each decision point “mode” there is the issue of creativity and skill versus lazy work to the target and stretching definitions.

Now for a slight diversion…

If someone can prove they ticked boxes and there is a “historical record” (usually one they themselves wrote but the courts seem to miss this) to back them up they usually get away with it. The courts also lose a sense if time in that they are unable to “review as they go along” and check incident A at point X on the timeline against incident B against incident “Y” on the timeline. As the system is “adversarial” and judgments are “based on the evidence” you can appreciate the scope for mistakes and lies especially where plaintiffs are kept in the dark and plausible lawyers aren’t always as good as they are cracked up to be.

Then when it is clear people will not shut up and go away you have the inevitable “public enquiry”. The only “lessons learned” will be how the jobsworths can justify more empire building and cover up better next time only it will cost more for what are basically cosmetic changes. Lather,rinse, repeat.

Back to the topic…

This paper seems to be working from the point of view of examining what could go wrong rather than the usual sweep it under the carpet after the event. It is applying creativity and skill to a framework of paperwork mountains and bureaucracy which impresses judges without a sense of curiosity who only look at the title of policies to see if the overall pattern makes sense on the surface and who weigh the stack. In a sense it is a process of “discovery”. A precautionary “what if”.

Oh look. It wasn’t a paper commissioned by the UK. What a surprise… And people wonder why China and Singapore have economies and we don’t. They wonder why Asia was prepared for a pandemic and we weren’t. Then there is the “dual use” of the paper which will justify methods of policymaking and firewalling.

Somebody also needs to take another look at fast trading and global money flows. This has been out of hand for a long time and can not only crash stockmarkets to speculators advantage but also crash countries economies to speculators advantage. The constant trickle of losses and financial buffeting does take its toll.

royal flush August 18, 2020 5:50 PM

Reminded me of this story about NYC water usage after the final episode of MAS*H


Eric Valk August 19, 2020 12:32 AM

Here is a very old example lof disinformation affecting infrastructure. When I was very young, in the time range 1961-1964 (April 1st 1963??), a local radio station in Edmonton, Alberta, announced that the local telephone company (which owned all the telephone services is in the city) was going to blow the dust out of the telephone lines, which could make quite a mess at the handsets since this had not been done in quite some time. Careful housewies were advised to put the telephone handset inside a plastic bag, and tie the bag loosely around cord. I remember my mother complaining and putting a bag around the handset.
I think there may have been some trouble aaround this as the telephone company was not part of the prank, and near the sheduled time of the “blow out” they likely had a massive spike in off hook indications.

Peter Galbavy August 19, 2020 2:56 AM

I’m on a tariff in the UK called Octopus Agile where the pricing is based on a formula that uses the industry market next day’s half-hour pricing with an uplift during the 4pm-7pm peak (a combination of network pricing and encouragement to not use power at that time). At various time, especially at the start of the lockdown in March/April while there was an excess of generation there were numerous incidences of negative pricing and during the day. People have read stories about this in the normal press already.

Convincing the credulous masses that their own energy provider will pay them to turn on their high consumption appliances at a specifc time (“Too much wind power, your energy provider will pay you to use your washing machine at 2pm on Saturday!”) would be too easy.

echo August 19, 2020 3:08 AM

I think it’s a mistake to keep calling people stupid if for no other reason it obscures the problem.

We are all somebody elses stupid…

David Rudling August 19, 2020 3:57 AM

If one is willing to accept Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds as Disinformation, then the threshold for probability of truth – the martians have landed – is seen to be improbably low in order to cause a widespread damaging response.

myliit August 19, 2020 5:08 AM


“I think it’s a mistake to keep calling people stupid if for no other reason it obscures the problem.” [1]

Perhaps a corollary, I prefer it when something is called straightforward, as opposed to simple or easy.

[1] One of my technical principals used to have a habit of calling some of our customers a bunch of dummies. A problem, to me, arose when he told customers, or potential customers, that they were a bunch of dummies. I reminded him later that that could be detrimental to the sales objective, please don’t call our customers dummies, or something like that.

Dylan August 19, 2020 10:35 AM


I’m also Californian, and that attack you describe would definitely work. Imagine telling people there was an extra plant online for the hottest few hours of the day, and to save their energy-intensive tasks (and AC usage) for then. The grid would fail instantly.

Ismar August 19, 2020 10:19 PM

It is not fair to blame the users for trying to act in their best interest while providing them with such a vulnerable system in the first place.
The whole conversation about this issue serves no other purpose but to cause considerable usage of resources and time to find some impossible solution .

The paper itself and the whole conversation about it can then be considered a diversion by means of resources misuse.

Solution- just make the power grid more robust or admit it cannot be done so that users can look for alternative solutions like local , power-grid-independent energy generation.

0laf August 20, 2020 3:36 AM

These scenarios work on a small scale for ripping off individuals but modifying the behaviour of a large population in order to affect a utility is unrealistic. Essentially the mob don’t care enough to overcome their inertia to move supplier en-mass.
It also takes time so even if a shift could be initiated it would take months and either the energy company would detect and deal with the increase in demand or the scam would be picked up or mitigated.

However if you look to the disinformation being out out by Russia and China that is much more effective over a longer period of time on a more nebulous outcome. The slow drip of poison to increase distrust in science, government and education that slowly weakens the effectiveness of a national enemy.

It’s very clever, and apparently effective. We’re being nudged slowly into incompetence and dotage. Even better we know it’s happening but it’s such a slow drip we do nothing about it.

Clive Robinson August 20, 2020 3:54 AM

@ Ismar,

Solution- just make the power grid more robust or admit it cannot be done so that users can look for alternative solutions like local , power-grid-independent energy generation.

Neither will be allowed in the US. “because profit”.

The various grid operators business models assume “captive consumers” thus the consumer is not given any freedom of choice not even “Hobson’s Choice” of “take it or leave it”.

If consumers had choice like “local generation” then the monipolistic models would fail and fail badly in the face of competition.

Thus the lobbyists fight tooth and nail to stop anything other than a de facto monopolistic system with high “taxation” via “standing charges” and “punitive low usage charges”.

When you realise that their business model is not to supply the utility but “get money for nothing” by such methods you start to understand what goes on.

And this applies to nearly all utility / grid suppliers of household gas, electricity, water, phone lines, cable and internet connections.

Where people have set up “community service, by the community for the community” these monopolistic grid operators have been exceptionaly active to get such things made illegal in some way. Because by and large community efforts almost always provide better service at lower cost.

The only way the grid operators can stay in business without lobbying is by not operating any kind of grid… The reason for this is the important facts that most economists try to hide in their models,

1, Distance is Inefficient.
2, Distance is Fragile.
3, Distance is Dependent on others.

Thus “Distance Costs”[1] a lot, way more than “local” and it’s this cost that alows new market entrants to get over the likes of “startup costs” and be competative locally. The “Distantce Cost” can never be overcome by “economies of scale”, nor by “increased productivity” or all the other nonsense you hear spouted.

It’s one of the reasons the US burns so much coal, the power providers who do work in competition with each other to supply the grid distributors have marginal profit at best thus any new infrastructure they build has pay back times in the half century or more times and often they will run such plant beyond the point of effective maintainance.

Back when they used to give “free low energy light bulbs” these were not realy free. They had got to the point where they could build neither new generating plant or put in new grid, thus the only option they had was to reduce demand from customers. Likewise free home insulation is another way to reduce demand from customers.

The problem for the grid operators and providers, is if you reduce supply then profits fall, as the stock market expects them to increase profit above either bank rates or inflation then other ways have to be found to make profit. As we know the Enron method did not work out very well, so “creative accounting”, “debt restructuring” etc does not work. Nore does “taking over smaller competitors” unless you can use it to form a monopoly such that you can apply blanket taxation, or put yourself in a “too big to fail” position thus demand money from the direct social taxation system of local and central government.

[1] If you ask any military commander no matter how lowly in the chain of command, they are more than aware of “Distance Costs” as it’s the major way that battles and wars are lost. They have it drummed into them from early on that “long supply lines are extreamly vulnerable and have high equipment and manpower requirments”. During WWII with Romel and his tanks in North Africa, it was not Montgomery’s army that killed Romel’s Africa Corp, they mearly put it out of it’s missery with a coup de grass. What ailed the Africa Corp was long supply lines where it took six gallons of fuel to put one gallon of fuel in a tank. Likewise water, food, amunition, spare parts. Thus the Africa Corp were killed by the Navy and Air Force that sunk Romel’s supply lines as Churchill amongs others were reading Romel’s shopping lists via Enigma, which they protected by working out which supplies were critical and sinking mainly only those vessels as they crossed the Mediterranean.

Ismar August 20, 2020 4:43 AM

This is not exclusively USA problem as all of the grids are similar but I agree that some countries could be more susceptible due to the combination of the population‘a general ignorance coupled with their available assets

echo August 20, 2020 5:29 AM

I do agree with Ismar it is a generic problem. Systems based on trust running into a stack of bellcurves are suspectible to this kind of phenonmena. I dislike arguments over state versus private and also dislike profiteering as much as I dislike systems being runs so efficient they are brittle. I am personally disinclined to talk about the US system partly because I’m fed up with hearing about the place but also because starting discussions with a bad model isn’t always helpful. I’d be more inclined to look elsewhere.

I think a good beginning is a country with a social democratic model and well regulated mixed economy which isn’t slave to socialmedia algorithms and a population size big enough to sway in that direction. An alternative would be to pick the best regulation and planning and ownership/construction blocks from countries who can provide “best practice” and see how this holds up as a system. I just find it more useful having a direction to head than sorting a chaotic toxic mess out. Also given the pressing climate change issues some kind of “open framework” would, I hope, encourage some sense of standards.

I’m kind of wandering off here but trade negotiations have a bearing too. Given the urgency to roll out greener technology and given we cannot mess about I would have thought some form of trade credit and/or cross-licensing and/or grants could help massage away some of the protectionist and trade imbalance issues? The basics are there and I know various people have brought up these kinds of options in the past so they are well thought through. It just needs the right kind of direction and political will.

I’m one of those people who think we should have international action witin five years not keep kicking the can down the road.

Clive Robinson August 20, 2020 6:00 AM

@ Ismar,

… I agree that some countries could be more susceptible …

You left the real kicker off those you mentioned, which is the fact that,

    Corporations via methods legal or otherwise have power over legislators.

Thus they get from the legislators their “wants” one way or another thus the monopolistic situation arises.

A typical route is to claim “National Security” which in effect trumps all other legislation. But there are other tricks such as to have various “regulatory costs” usually with a very large fixed component and very small incremental cost per customer. Which is put on potential market entrants thus vastly inflating their cost per customer when amortized.

These corporates pay vast numbers of lawyers to come up with new ideas to “begger thy neighbour”, and worse they often write the legislation for the legislators who rarely if ever bother to read it due to the overly complex way it is written…

But if the legislation fails the first time they can always tack it on at the last minute to an omnibus bill etc. As Wikipedia puts it[1],

    “Because of their large size and scope, omnibus bills limit opportunities for debate and scrutiny. Historically, omnibus bills have sometimes been used to pass controversial amendments. For this reason, some consider omnibus bills to be anti-democratic.”

The usual pro argument is that omnibus bills prevent attacks on the will of the people and speed up the legislative process. So you get nonsense / faux arguments that it would be “to difficult to define what an omnibus law is”.

Which is a compleate nonsense, as there is a known method the so called “single subject rule” that does help limit the abuse of omnibus legislation.

The fact that the US Federal Government does not have a “single subject rule” whilst most states (41) do should start ringing alarm bells in your head about the “abuse of process” that omnibus legislation presents and just how it focuses thus enlarges the windfall benifits of lobbying to those few “Up on the hill”.

As for the difficulty in defining nonsense the single subject rule in Minnisota that requires,

    “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”

I don’t know about you but that sounds like a reasonable way to make legislation that is clear and understandable, thus reachable by the avergae US citizen.


Clive Robinson August 20, 2020 8:25 AM

@ echo, Ismar,

I’m one of those people who think we should have international action witin five years not keep kicking the can down the road.

The sad fact is under a Capatalist system[1] the can will be kicked as long as there is some one prepared to hand over money, power, status, etc for it to be kicked as far as possible.

[1] Current sociological and psychological thinking is that the “Capitalist System” is the distiled essence of socio/psychopathic behavior[2], with some with significantly less ability to hide their traits showing extream narsistic personality disorder. Which often manifests it’s self by the narcissist when challenged with facts etc “loosing it” and exhibiting extream responses including both verbal and physical assault that are more than sufficient to attract severe criminal penalties. Testing of business leaders in large non shareholder led business corporations suggest that such mental health disorders are close to a hundred times that of the general population. They admit no wrong and argue that there aberrant behaviours are “leadership skills” etc.

[2] Apparently the usuall questionaire method of identifing the various psychopathic traits is not of necessity required. That is, a sufficient diagnosis for some is an analysis of how they manage opportunity/risk. If they chase unlikely “upside” opportunity with little or no “downside” risk consideration then either they are psychopaths or incurable gamblers, either way the resulting behavioir traits on the downside risk occuring is effectively the same inability to face not just responsibility but reality often in extream outbursts.

echo August 20, 2020 2:43 PM


Yes I know this. There’s also academic papers which say discussing the positive scheme first is better than beginning with the negative. People need something to hang on to and give shape to things and influence and attract support or you’re just conducting a firefighting exercise.

MarkH August 20, 2020 3:45 PM

In my opinion, Clive has it right that electric power utilities won’t, on their own initiative, go as far toward increasing robustness and resilience of their systems as is necessary for the common good.

Putting profit considerations aside (many U.S. electric utilities are non-profit), the industry is highly regulated. Capital investments are charged back to customers, and the companies must account “why is this necessary.”

That a massive capital outlay could benefit national security would be a difficult case to sustain.

If some future federal government is a little rational, it could consider that:

  1. The distribution system is under-maintained.
  2. It must in any case be hugely expanded to support CO2 reductions.
  3. This kind of infrastructure investment has very large “ripple” benefits.
  4. The costs of a large-scale “system meltdown” — especially involving destruction of equipment with long lead times — would plausibly exceed any previous national disaster.

With a combination of mandates and subsidies, the U.S. could surely do the job, and get an excellent return on investment.

We’ll see …

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