The Fight Against Disinformation – A Lucrative Business

The fight against disinformation in the West is rapidly becoming a lucrative business. High-profile media campaigns around so-called fake news in the political sphere are just the tip of an iceberg that, in many ways, is hiding what it’s really about and the objectives of those actually involved.

The fake news phenomenon has been a particular concern of the international community, especially in the West, for the last two years. The term received a noticeable surge in popularity during the 2016 US presidential elections. In 2017, the British publisher Collins named “fake news” as its word of the year, defining it as “false – often sensational – information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.

In reality, the fake news phenomenon is linked to the particular way that Facebook’s News Feed and the Twitter microblogging service function. A large proportion of Internet users, primarily in the West, use Facebook or Twitter to follow the news, and this preference, combined with people’s tendency to mainly read the headlines, as well as the personalisation of search results (the Filter bubble), has made it possible to exert a powerful influence over current processes in society.

Fake news can be defined as false information or the deliberate circulation of disinformation on social and traditional media with the intention of misleading for financial or political gain. At the same time, making a direct profit along the same principles as clickbaiting to entice traffic does not have serious social implications. Catchy headlines or made-up stories with very little substance are used to create such stories. The device operates completely differently when it comes to political propaganda or unfair business practices, however.

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‘Fake news’ becomes a business model – researchers

Companies today are actively making use of the Internet and social media. It is an integral part of their marketing strategies and serves to tackle long-standing challenges with the aid of new technologies. The medium is becoming increasingly open to abuse and outright fraud, however. It makes possible all kinds of attacks on competitors, from stealing sensitive information and other content to online marketing scams and complex operations to completely undermine companies’ market positions.

In early 2017, the American multinational company Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, began a review of its advertising contracts in order to increase the transparency of its supply chain. P&G experts also developed a four-point plan that is now being implemented, the aim of which is to make media buying a more honest process.

Many major advertiser brands like McDonald’s and L’Oreal have also spoken out about fraud in the media buying market. Companies are optimising the process: they are determining efficiency ratios, entrusting accredited firms with verification, and reviewing current contracts to achieve greater transparency.

In March 2017, a number of global companies decided to stop placing ads on Google-owned sites due to “brand safety” issues. The decision was taken after it was discovered that their adverts were being placed alongside content containing violence, hatred and extremism. According to a Times investigation, major companies were inadvertently funding extremists, pro-Nazis, and pornographers.

Despite apologies from Google, the reasons for the apparently uncontrolled distribution of “bad content” on sites belonging to the media giant remain unclear. Some British MPs expressed the view that Google wasstill profiting from hatred”. Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that Google’s failure to remove the hate videos was “frankly astonishing”.

In truth, the presence of material online that could be used to discredit rival organisations or individuals is too effective a tool to get rid of. And Google knows that better than anyone.

The use of compromising information to destroy rivals, including information that is false or completely fabricated, has a long history in the West. In the late 19th century, virtually at the dawn of mass media, there were instances of the effective use of such methods in the battle for control over markets in strategic raw materials. These included pushing the noble opal out of the European jewellery market since, at that time, noble opals reigned supreme on the continent and were hindering the expansion of the fast-growing diamond industry over which Great Britain wanted to establish a monopoly.

In the early 1870s, stories began to appear in the European press aimed at giving the opal a negative use value. Potential buyers were given the idea that the stone might bring bad luck to its wearer. The stream of publications was followed by the superstitions they generated. At the same, information was circulated about diamonds that was painted in the most positive colours.

The story reached its culmination in 1875, just as Spain found itself in the middle of a cholera epidemic. King Alfonso XII of Spain gave his wife, Queen Maria de las Mercedes, an extremely beautiful opal ring as a talisman against deadly diseases. The queen died. The ring was given to a princess, who also passed away soon afterwards. The king himself began wearing the opal ring and he, too, fell victim to cholera.

OpalThe unfortunate story became a hit in the European press of that time and spent a suspiciously long time on its pages. Rather than showing sympathy for the sufferings endured by the royal family, the chilling news stories focussed on the harmfulness of opal and opal jewellery. Many historical examples were cited that convincingly proved it was the wearing of opals that led to the deaths of members of royal families and other distinguished people. All kinds of astrologers, psychics, medical professors and even geologists shook their heads regretfully as they told perplexed consumers about the harmfulness of this accursed gemstone, pointing to the lethal radiation emitted by opals, their ability to attract evil forces, and the way they helped to bring about terrible diseases. After a few years, there was no longer a market for the ill-fated opal; it had burst like a bubble.

It stands to reason that the deaths in the Spanish royal family weren’t caused by the magical properties of opal, but by the poorly designed water and sanitation system in the royal palace. Be that as it may, however, a large segment of the jewellery market had been successfully purged of a competitor.

Modern information technologies have actually made the use of such methods more accessible to a wider audience. And not just media giants, but multinational corporations. The idea of fake news has become so widespread and commonplace that, in the information sphere, the fight against fake news has become a promising new market for services. More and more startups are specialising in the fight against fake news, seeking to extract as much profit from it as possible. Experts believe that the market could be worth as much as $200 billion within the next five years.

It is interesting that, while acting in the interests of their clients, the companies involved in the fight against fake news are not only capable of performing protective functions, but are also capable of having a kind of “corrective” and even a pre-emptive impact designed to influence public opinion in exactly the same way as fake news. It no longer just looks like a fight, but like a real information war with commercial objectives.

The danger in this situation is that the information space might not be rid of fake news as society desires, but rather that it will be filled with a much greater volume of specially created and targeted information. This process will be helped along by market forces since it is well known that where there’s demand, there’s supply.

As noted by Jonathon Morgan, CEO of cybersecurity firm New Knowledge: “Let’s say we detect early on that people are working together to push a narrative that Beyoncé is a Russian spy. That’s ridiculous. So if we see that early enough, before it is trending on Twitter or on InfoWars or Fox, we can come up with an alternative: Beyoncé is an American patriot.” This example raises a legitimate question regarding the criteria for evaluating information. Who determines whether information is true or false? In today’s politics and society, not everything is as obvious as Jonathon Morgan believes it to be. And the idea of Beyoncé being a Russian spy is not quite so “ridiculous” given the accusations made against the US president and his inner circle.

It should be noted that New Knowledge has already been hugely successful in its fight against fake news. Financially, at least. While the effectiveness of its methods may still be up for debate, the $11 million that the company managed to raise in 2018 alone speaks for itself.

Doug Jones
Facebook has suspended the accounts of five Americans, including a prominent social media researcher, for allegedly running a Russian-style political disinformation campaign during the 2017 special Senate election in Alabama.

The founders of New Knowledge are experts in security systems and artificial intelligence who once served in the NSA. The company gained fame for its investigation into Russian meddling in the US elections. But as a result of the scandal that erupted in America at the end of last year over the imaginary Russian trolls used by the Democrats against the Republicans, it was discovered that the company’s experts had themselves carried out cyberattacks on Republican Roy Moore, who took part in the electoral race to become senator of Alabama. To this end, New Knowledge created 1000 fake Russian Twitter accounts that suddenly began following Roy Moore’s Twitter account, sparking a negative reaction in the media and in US society that resulted in a slide in popularity for the Republican during the Alabama race. The seat was won by his opponent, Democrat Doug Jones.

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