‘Black PR’: An industry built around sowing disinformation
Coordinated efforts to disseminate propaganda online are supported by “a worldwide industry of PR and marketing firms ready to deploy fake accounts, false narratives, and pseudo news websites for the right price,” according to a Jan. 6 report by BuzzFeed News and The Reporter, an investigative news outlet in Taiwan.
Such businesses — which in the public relations industry are described as practicing “black PR” — operate all over the world. They use a variety of increasingly sophisticated tactics to try to “change reality” in ways that benefit their clients, which include corporations, governments, politicians and political parties.
These tactics include publishing “fake news” stories, then using legions of fake social media accounts to amplify those and other messages. This practice boosts their ranking in search results and helps spread them across social media platforms and in groups on private messaging apps. The fake accounts are also used to make comments designed to give false weight to specific sentiments, both positive and negative, in line with their clients’ interests. (This form of artificial grassroots expression is also known as “astroturfing.”)
Some of these companies are developing advanced disinformation strategies and using emerging technologies, the BuzzFeed report found. The Archimedes Group, an Israeli “black PR” firm, created fake fact-checking groups to promote its clients’ interests. It also managed social media pages both against and for a Nigerian politician, Atiku Abubakar — ostensibly to damage him as well as to identify his supporters “in order to target them with anti-Abubakar content later.”
A “black PR” practitioner in Taiwan — Peng Kuan Chin, who is featured in the BuzzFeed article — has built an “end-to-end online manipulation system” that uses artificial intelligence to scrape organic articles and social media posts for key phrases. It then reassembles them into algorithmically generated pieces, publishes these articles to a group of websites Peng operates, and pushes the links out through thousands of automated social media accounts he controls.
Social media platforms’ actions against “black PR” tactics include removing accounts, pages and groups that engage in such activity, yet the practice continues to grow.
Demand for Deceit: How the Way We Think Drives Disinformation (Samuel Woolley and Katie Joseff, National Endowment for Democracy).
Can ordinary people avoid being influenced by professional disinformation efforts online? What steps are social media platforms taking to counteract these practices? What steps aren’t they taking that they should? What steps can you take to ensure the information you use as the basis for your decisions is credible? What kind of information environment might these kinds of practices — especially those that are automated at a large scale — produce if they are left unchecked? How might these kinds of practices affect elections in the coming years?