Protect Your Brand: How to Battle Disinformation Campaigns

September 30, 2019 • The Recorded Future Team

How easy is it to tell a convincing lie on the internet? And how hard is it to spot one?

As part of a research effort, Insikt Group investigated the capabilities of two disinformation as a service vendors on Russian-speaking underground forums. To test the operational capabilities of these vendors, Insikt Group engaged with one threat actor to generate positive disinformation, and the other for negative disinformation, both directed at a fictitious company we created.

Insikt Group was able to launch the two campaigns for just a few thousand dollars, and in about a month, see stories published in multiple news outlets and blogs. The vendors also listed more extensive and expensive services promising press coverage in major media outlets — and it is not difficult to believe that they would be able to do so, given the success of the campaign Insikt Group saw them undertake. It’s worth noting that all the entities used in our campaign have been given pseudonyms.

Here, we’ll examine what you can do to fight back if you’re the target of a disinformation campaign. The approach is divided into two lines of defense: the removal of bad content, and the production and distribution of your own counternarrative (which, hopefully, is the truth).

Removing Bad Content

The first step is to find disinformation and uproot it. There are a few ways to do this:

Find and Report

Use reporting functions on any platform where malicious content is found to flag it and have it removed. This brings up the question of how to discover the full extent of a disinformation campaign in the first place within the vast sea of content constantly being uploaded to the internet.

One method is to use a brand monitoring solution to set up alerts for mentions of your brand. These solutions are typically used to prevent fraud and phishing attacks, but they can be tailored to find any mention of your brand, regardless of intent. When this process is automated, you can much more quickly and reliably find those mentions, which might circumvent an attack or disinformation campaign that you would otherwise be unaware of for weeks (or even months).

Legal Action

If possible and necessary, then the next step is to take legal action. This includes sending cease and desist letters directed at the party originating the disinformation campaign, filing libel suits, initiating IP or domain takedowns, or even involving law enforcement.

Creating Good Content

It’s not enough to simply try to remove the offending content from the internet, for two reasons: first, the damage might already be done in terms of public perception, and second, it’s like trying to hit a moving target — the disinformation campaign you’re fighting might continue as long as your opponents are willing to put resources into it.

Effectively defeating disinformation requires a counterinformation campaign on your part. Develop a narrative, create content, and then distribute it throughout every channel possible, and follow the best practices outlined below to make sure that your content gets seen.

Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the process of making a website more visible to search engines like Google, increasing the quality and quantity of web traffic to that site. Google wants people to be happy with the results of their queries, so the top-ranking results for a search should be as relevant as possible. Google’s web crawlers trawl the web and algorithmically determine what the most relevant results should be by looking for things like relevant keywords, a site’s “authority” (based on factors like how many inbound links it has), the presence of multimedia content, and properly formatted HTML code.

Deciphering the obscure and ever-changing rules of SEO algorithms can be somewhat of an alchemical process, but it’s a huge industry for marketers — and disinformation-as-a-service providers, too (our full report provides a list of prices for their services that includes SEO). Defeating a disinformation campaign may therefore require an involved SEO effort on your part.

Here’s one good place to start with SEO, but in short, try to identify what keywords are being targeted in a disinformation campaign and produce competing content to overtake it in organic searches.

Positive PR, SEM, and Other Paid Ads

Engaging with a PR consultant or firm to tell stories about your company, people, research, and industry leadership can go a long way in helping to better establish your organization’s reputation. Leveraging the relationships built over time by PR professionals with established members of the media can also help to ensure your story is getting to the right people, in the right places, at the right time.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is like SEO, but relies on paid advertising rather than best practices to reach the top of a search engine results page (SERP). Google any term, and generally, the top three or four results will be paid ads, delineated by the small “ad” icon that appears next to the hyperlink.

It can take many months for even the most effective SEO campaign to see results, but SEM efforts are immediate. The tradeoff (other than cost) is that advertisements will never carry the same authority in the public eye as a top organic result.

Nevertheless, SEM and other kinds of paid advertisements — across social media platforms, in print media, on television, and more, depending on the scale of the disinformation campaign you’re confronting — are an effective and necessary way to get messaging in front of as many people as possible. Focus on producing native content over display advertising to help with a public perception of authenticity.

Disinformation in the Internet Age

The idea of a disinformation campaign is nothing new, of course — concepts of libel, defamation, and calumny are as old as the invention of lying. But as the recent public discourse on concepts like “fake news” shows, the internet has deeply transformed the way we access and produce information in ways both good and bad, and has blurred the lines between truth and opinion.

Today’s new media and social media platforms are designed to be open and facilitate connections between like-minded individuals. The result is that we’re often bombarded with content that’s being algorithmically shared with us, based on content that we’ve already viewed, further polarizing us and creating an echo chamber full of confirmation bias and tribalistic behavior.

The internet has also disrupted the revenue models of traditional news outlets. Websites like Craigslist, for example, have completely usurped the role of classified ads in newspapers, costing news outlets some $5 billion between 2000 and 2007. Between this and the success of social media platforms as a source of news — some two-thirds of American adults say they get at least some of their news from social media — traditional news has been pressured to adapt or die. Many outlets have followed the lead of new media into more sensational headlines in an effort to get more views, or native content features that appear alongside genuine news stories to make a profit.

Further, where traditional news outlets have thought deeply about questions of journalistic integrity for centuries, the representatives of social media platforms have struggled to maintain a consistent position on whether they are neutral public forums, platforms for free speech, private distributors of content, or something else. The way these platforms have empowered users to produce, distribute, and consume content so much more easily and cheaply, and with little to no oversight, calls to mind Socrates’s description of democracy as “full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.”

The short of it is, if people want to put out damaging content on the internet to impact the public perception of anything from an individual’s reputation to the outcome of a major election, they can do it quickly and with relatively few resources. In the Internet Age, we are living in a new reality where brand and reputation protection is no longer a strategy reserved for Fortune 100 companies and major politicians and celebrities. Fighting back requires engaging your opponents on the same battleground, using the same weapons and resources.

Find out how Recorded Future can help you keep your brand safe from threat actors.