Disinformation Campaigns Are Coming for Your Bottom Line 

The rise of disinformation campaigns could put the reputation of your company at risk

Imagine waking up to find the internet flooded with fake news that one of your products was killing hordes of people or your company had been implicated in a human trafficking ring. Imagine if there was a deepfake video of you or one of your company executives engaging in criminal activity: purchasing illegal drugs, bribing an official or defrauding the company and its shareholders. 

Welcome to the age of disinformation campaigns.

These types of campaigns are increasingly being used to target businesses and executives. For centuries, they’ve been used as a political tool for one simple reason: They work. There’s ample evidence that Russia manipulated the 2016 presidential election through fake news. In July, a European Commission analysis found that Russia targeted the European parliamentary elections, and just last week, Facebook and Twitter had to take action against China after it orchestrated numerous coordinated social media campaigns to undermine political protests in Hong Kong. 

From Italy to Brazil, Nigeria to Myanmar, governments or individuals are sowing division, discrediting an opponent or swaying an election with false information — often with deadly consequences.

Here at home, there have been numerous disinformation campaigns aimed at politicians and other individuals. Earlier this summer, a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, doctored to make it appear that she was drunk, went viral. Last July, the Conservative Review network (CRTV) posted an interview to Facebook with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who was then a candidate) where she was generally confused and appeared to think Venezuela was in the Middle East. It turned out the “interview” was a mashup of an interview Ocasio-Cortez gave on the show Firing Line spliced with staged questions from CRTV host Allie Stuckey. The post was viewed over a million times within 24 hours and garnered derisive comments from viewers who thought it was real — before Stuckey announced that it was meant as satire. 

Republican politicians have also been targeted (though to a lesser degree). Last year, North Dakota Democrats ran a Facebook ad under a page titled “Hunter Alerts.” The ad warned North Dakotans that they could lose their out-of-state hunting licenses if they voted in the midterm elections, a claim that was unsubstantiated and refuted by the state’s GOP.

Regardless of the targets, disinformation campaigns are designed to leave you wondering what information to trust and who to believe. They succeed when they sow any sense of doubt in your thinking.

The same technology that makes the spread of false information in the political arena so dangerous and effective is now being aimed at the business sector. 

Earlier this year, the Russian network RT America — which was identified as a “principal meddler” in the 2016 presidential election by U.S. intelligence agencies — aired a segment spooking viewers by claiming 5G technology can cause problems like brain cancer and autism. 

There’s no scientific evidence to back up the claims, and many seem to think the success of America’s 5G network is seen as a threat to Russia, which will use every weapon in its arsenal to create doubt and confusion in countries it deems competitors or enemies. 

Whether for political gain (to help elect a U.S. President sympathetic to Russia) or to sabotage technological progress that threatens Russia’s place in the world economic hierarchy (as with 5G), Russia has developed and deployed a sophisticated disinformation machine that can be pointed like a tactical missile at our underlying democratic and capitalistic institutions. 

Economic warfare on a macro level is nothing new, and fake news and “pump and dump” tactics have long been used in stock manipulation. But more and more, individual companies are being targeted simply because the perpetrator has an axe to grind. 

Starbucks was a target in 2017, when a group on the anonymous online bulletin board 4Chan created a fake campaign offering discounted items to undocumented immigrants. Creators of the so-called “Dreamer Day” promotion produced fake ads and the hashtag #borderfreecoffee to lure unsuspecting undocumented Americans to Starbucks. The company took to Twitter to set the record straight after it was targeted in angry tweets.

Tesla, Coca-Cola, Xbox and Costco are among numerous companies or industries that have also been targeted by orchestrated rumors.

The threat to American companies is so severe that earlier this month, Moody’s Investment Services released a report with a dire warning: Disinformation campaigns can harm a company’s reputation and creditworthiness. 

How would you respond to a fake but completely believable viral video of you as a CEO, employee (or even as a parent) admitting to stealing from your clients, promoting white-supremacy or molesting children? The consequences to your reputation, personally and professionally, would be devastating — and often irreparable regardless of the truth behind the claims. As I explored in Deepfakes: When Seeing May Not Be Believing, advances in artificial intelligence and the declining cost of deepfake videos make highly credible imposter videos an immediate and powerful reality. 

Preparing your organization for disinformation attacks is of paramount importance, as your speed of response can make a significant financial and reputational difference. Just as you should develop a Breach Response Plan before cybercriminals penetrate your systems, you would also be wise to create a Disinformation Response Plan that:

  • Outlines your public relations strategy
  • Defines potential client and stakeholder communications 
  • Prepares your social media response
  • Predetermines the legal implications and appropriate response.

Disinformation campaigns are here to stay, and advances in technology will ensure they become more prevalent and believable. That’s why it’s vital that you put a plan in place before you or your company are victimized — because at this point in the game, the only way to fight disinformation is with the immediate release of accurate and credible information. 

About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is an award-winning author and keynote speaker on cybersecurity, identity theft and tech/life balance. He energizes conferences, corporate trainings and main-stage events by making security fun and engaging. His clients include the Pentagon, Schwab and organizations of all sizes. John got started in cybersecurity when he lost everything, including his $2 million business, to cybercrime. Since then, he has shared his experiences on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper, and even while cooking meatballs with Rachel Ray. Contact John directly to see how he can customize his presentations to your audience.