Propaganda, PsyOps (Psychological Operations) and other information warfare techniques, used to be the preserve of nation-states. But there are plenty of examples of why that is no longer true: Cambridge Analytica, Da’esh, anti-vaxxers, election/referendum meddling, the activities of the Far and Alt-Right.
But what do we mean by “disinformation” – often the umbrella term for all these activities? A recent UK Government Communications Service (GCS) initiative set up to tackle it describes disinformation as “the deliberate creation and/or sharing of false information with the intention to deceive and mislead audiences.” In short, disinformation is a tool to destroy trust.
To make matters worse, our determination to expose such practices could actually be helping spread the lessons and tactics more widely. For example, a recent report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report into the activities of Russia’s Internet Research Agency reads like a ‘how to’ guide on the creation of sophisticated online influence campaigns. This has real impact on businesses that operate internationally or compete with state-backed and funded enterprises, and on those that choose to take a position on a cultural issue or pursue a purpose-driven agenda.
For bad actors to have the ability to reach far, wide and deep among your customers and employees – to degrade goodwill, morale and reputation – it is a worrying proposition. Yet the defensive tools, processes and approaches taken by many businesses have not changed. At the same time, we know there is a growing recognition that trust and reputation are essential business assets. So, what can be done?
The temptation is for corporate communications teams to approach concerted, sophisticated communications attacks as if it were that of an erroneous story in the media. They use rebuttal, the threat of legal action or counter-messaging. But, unlike traditional media, often disinformation is based on little more than a false equivalency, the exploitation of an audience’s bias and a twisted grain of truth from which an outright lie has been spun.
As with any risk-mitigation effort, the key to tackling this is preparation, but it also takes a process of reappraisal as to how and why these issues and crises flair up and how to quell them.
Such a new approach needs senior level buy-in, because the most suitable response to malign messaging may well be to ignore it – to do nothing – which is surprisingly difficult. Often salacious rumours on social media about senior executives or corrupt business practices act as a strobe-light from which no one can look away.
If you imagine the threat as a graph, it is hockey-stick shaped. Bedroom warriors, bent on causing fuss or disruption, are responsible for most disinformation, but of course it is those rarer occasions when a coordinated, multifaceted, multichannel attack occurs that the greatest damage will be felt by your business.
At Edelman, we believe that to create a better future through trust between brands and people we must also be prepared to defend and protect the trust that already exists. That is why as part of our Issues and Crisis practice we have invested in both expertise and the creation of tools, to help communications teams tackle what will become one of the, if not the, most pressing communications challenge of the future.
For further details please contact Simon Paterson on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 7393243222.