While influence operations are most widely discussed in the context of politics and electoral interference, they are no longer confined to state-on-state activity. They are increasingly being deployed against a variety of targets, from private individuals to multinational corporations, with a material impact. These often seemingly random assaults can trigger stakeholder panic and customer confusion, erode trust and confidence in a brand, and cause deep reputational embarrassment for the targeted company. In the case of public companies, this has often resulted in a drop in share price or direct loss of revenue.
In May 2019, for example, rumours surrounding Metro Bank snowballed across WhatsApp, claiming the bank was facing severe financial difficulties and urging customers to withdraw funds from their accounts as quickly as possible. In scenes reminiscent of the Mary Poppins bank run, queues of panicked customers started forming within hours at several of the bank’s branches. The rumour was untrue, with no risks to customers’ money. Yet shares tumbled by nine per cent in the following days.
In the consumer goods sector, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both weathered attacks on their brands. Coca-Cola’s Dasani water brand was the subject of a disinformation campaign carried out through a hoax website, claiming the product was contaminated with parasites. And Pepsi was boycotted by consumers over quotes attributed to its CEO that he never actually made. Pepsi’s stock price took a significant hit the day the fake quotes started circulating, and continued to decline as they were amplified on social media.
Conspiracy theories spread across multiple platforms have also had a terrifying impact on the employees of targeted companies. In 2020, fuelled by a false story linking Covid-19 to 5G wireless networks, an employee of BT in the UK was stabbed and hospitalised. The telecommunications company was widely known to be installing a 5G network across the UK.
Disinformation campaigns are not a new phenomenon, with examples dating back to the invention of the printing press. Fake news, while popularised as a term in the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, was used as a propaganda tool throughout the 20th century. In recent years, however, social media has precipitated an outbreak of false narratives on a global scale, eroding trust in sources previously considered reliable. Many people are flocking to social and alternative media channels as their primary source of information.
As automation is cheap and anonymity easy to achieve on these platforms, they have become prone to manipulation. Automation can enable the creation of thousands of false identities promoting a story until it starts ‘trending’, endowing it with ostensible authority. False narratives may also be supported by the use of convincing synthetic media (such as doctored photos and deepfakes), masquerading as evidence.
With artificially-generated credibility, sophisticated attacks on a company’s reputation can reach millions of people. The platforms are difficult to regulate and moderate, making the already complex task of mitigating online disinformation campaigns even more difficult.
Simply spotting a rumour in its early stages is not enough to mitigate against its potential effects. Identifying its source is necessary to prevent worsening attacks and assuage stakeholders’ fears. Such attacks can spread rapidly and be highly corrosive – and even when proven wrong, they can leave lingering mistrust and reputational damage.
Countering sophisticated attacks – Digitalis’s methodology
Digitalis’s technology enables us to gather data, run advanced automated analytics, identify coordinated inauthentic behaviour and artificial amplification, and perform bespoke queries to interrogate the data. The Disinformation Investigations Unit itself is staffed by Digitalis personnel with backgrounds in military intelligence, digital and geopolitical risk and technology, with deep knowledge of algorithms, search engines and social media.
Recently, the Unit’s capabilities have assisted in fingerprinting state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, revealed damaging conspiracy theories, and identified the inauthentic manipulation of media and social media platforms across multiple campaigns. The team has also unveiled the real-world identities behind some of the most harmful content online and behind many hundreds of successful takedown requests.
Digitalis’s Disinformation Investigations Unit can work directly with PR agencies and in-house communications teams who discover fake news via their traditional monitoring channels but have no idea why, or by whom, it was created. Rather than simply denying a rumour, PRs will have the ability to understand its source and the agenda of those behind it, enabling them to make quick and informed decisions on the best way to deal with it. For enquiries or to receive a quote for work please contact James Hann, Head of Digital Risk, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Carys Whomsley, Associate Director, at email@example.com