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
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.