Corporations Are Juicy Targets for Foreign Disinformation – DNyuz

Corporations Are Juicy Targets for Foreign Disinformation

We’re used to Russian disinformation targeting, say, Volodymyr Zelensky or U.S. presidential elections. But smear campaigns of uncertain provenance are increasingly targeting not just politics, but Western companies too. They’re not just a reputational nuisance, but a genuine economic threat, one that could be wielded by hostile states.

We’re used to Russian disinformation targeting, say, Volodymyr Zelensky or U.S. presidential elections. But smear campaigns of uncertain provenance are increasingly targeting not just politics, but Western companies too. They’re not just a reputational nuisance, but a genuine economic threat, one that could be wielded by hostile states.

Nearly half of all Americans—47 percent—believe they see disinformation every day. So do 46 percent of Britons, 44 percent of Brazilians, 52 percent of Nigerians, 24 percent of Indians, and 20 percent of both Germans and Japanese, a 2022 report by the Poynter Institute shows. What matters most, though, is whether the public can identify the disinformation. The public mistaking facts for falsehoods and vice versa is fatal for a democracy. And there’s a dangerous mismatch here: Ninety percent of Americans, for example, believe they can spot disinformation, but three-fourths overestimate their skills, academics reported in a 2021 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is, in other words, easy to disseminate falsehoods, and artificial intelligence may make it even easier, or at least faster. It’s no surprise disinformation creators are refining their trade and picking potentially more profitable targets. Disinformation targeted at individual companies is growing fast.

Ninety-five percent of FTSE 100 companies (the London Stock Exchange’s top 100 firms) were frequently mentioned by noncredible publications in the first half of this year, communications firm Kekst finds in a new report. That’s 35 percent more than the year before. There were 348,000 social-media shares of these publications’ articles about FTSE 100 firms, which resulted in nearly 10 million impressions. Some of the articles are likely to have been prompted by companies’ competitors, while others were the result of poor-quality journalism, but it’s not yet clear that hostile states instrumentalize disinformation targeting Western businesses.

That’s likely coming, though. Disinformation today extends beyond mere bots on X, formerly known as Twitter. More than 100 noncredible publications (including a spiritualist magazine, publications known for spreading Russian propaganda, and American and Indian far-right magazines) regularly cover FTSE 100 companies, Kekst reports. What does a “noncredible” publication mean? By Kekst’s definition, it’s one that repeatedly publishes false content, doesn’t gather and present information responsibly, doesn’t correct or clarify errors, blends news and opinion content, uses deceptive headlines, doesn’t disclose ownership or financing, doesn’t label advertising, doesn’t reveal its ownership, and doesn’t name its writers.

But in an era of gullibility and infinite content, it’s easy for them to put out an article that looks legitimate on a quick glance, which then makes its way to interested social-media users, who enthusiastically share the findings because they have no idea how to identify disinformation. “We haven’t directly noticed this trend directly, but we are seeing the use of misinformation being used to force narratives that are malign and are being used to give others market advantage,” Simon Bergman, the chief executive officer of Saatchi World Services, told me. “This is particularly true when organizations have state backing or are operating outside the rules-based system and normal legal frameworks, and it has become more manifest post-covid and since the war in Ukraine.”

Juicy news spread more slowly in the 1980s, but the KGB and other Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies were still able to convince the world that AIDS had originated in a U.S. Army lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland: An article in a serious-looking publication was picked up by some news media, then more, and then the public got talking. The rumor about the U.S. Army creating AIDS remains in circulation to this day.

The time lapse between inaccuracies about a company are published in a dubious publication and the company gets wind of it is critical. And because most dubious publications aren’t found through traditional media monitoring, the targeted company is unlikely to detect the falsehoods straight away. That gives disinformation spreaders a crucial head start. When the company discovers the falsehoods, the stock market is likely to discover it, too, and because traders have to react quickly, a company targeted by disinformation faces a stock-price drop.

“Many organizations don’t realize they are victims of this activity until it is too late and they are on the back foot to react, normally poorly and with little understanding of the complexities and positives and negatives of rebuttal,” Bergman said. “A smart proactive approach to managing their own narrative and corporate messaging can go some way to protect them from this type of activity, but it depends what they are trying protect: share price, corporate reputation, stakeholder value, or critical audience perception.” In its report, Kekst notes that falsehoods about businesses’ adherence to climate targets rose during last year’s United Nations COP27 summit. They’re likely to do so again during this year’s COP28.

To be sure, disinformation directed against companies is nothing new. A few years ago, a forged Defense Department memo appeared to show that a leading semiconductor company’s planned acquisition of another company had prompted national security concerns. The stocks of both companies fell. Such defamation was usually the work of a commercial rival. In a 2021 report, PWC explained how easy and cheap it was to mount such a campaign: “$15-$45 to create a 1,000-character article; $65 to contact a media source directly to spread material; $100 for 10 comments to post on a given article or news story; $350-$550 per month for social media marketing; and $1,500 for search engine optimization services to promote social media posts and articles over a 10- to 15-day period.”

Given this extraordinary ease, it was only a matter of time before state-linked outfits discovered that targeting Western companies was an easy way of harming Western countries. “Russia can use a company as a convenient target,” said Janis Sarts, the director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga. “Of course, the company suffers, but it’s not the primary target.”

There’s not yet any forensic evidence that Russia or another hostile country is behind the rise in corporate disinformation campaigns, though a hostile state is known to have fueled the bogus findings linking 5G to the coronavirus, which caused fear among Western residents and delayed the 5G rollout in many countries. The rapid increase in disinformation campaigns against companies, though, suggests it’s no longer an activity just involving envious competitors.

A share-price dip based on disinformation won’t last long because the affected company will quickly alert the markets to the disinformation. But even a temporary dip is harmful. And consider the effect on a country’s financial standing if several major companies were to be simultaneously targeted by disinformation campaigns. The stock market would wobble and global markets would begin doubting the country’s financial stability.

I’m not giving hostile states a blueprint for how to cheaply hurt Western economies: They’re already familiar with the secret juice. Western companies should realize that they’re in the firing line, not because they’re in themselves controversial, but because they’re an easy disinformation target. Communications teams should start reading obscure publications that lack author names and ownership details. Or as Bergman put it, “monitor the information environment smartly with good tech tools and people who understand where and how to look.”

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