Fake Facts: What the Rise of Disinformation Campaigns Means for Businesses

Neil Hodge


April 1, 2020

In January 2019, a video surfaced online purportedly showing a Tesla self-driving vehicle knock over a robot prototype at CES, one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics shows. The video went viral and media outlets ran sensational headlines declaring that the robot was either “killed” or “mowed down” by a driverless car that failed to spot what could have been a pedestrian. However, the video was completely fake. Tesla did not have a self-driving model at the time, and the robot that was “killed” was actually part of an elaborate publicity stunt by Promobot, the Russian firm that developed it. Despite subsequent debunking of the hoax, many people still believe it happened.

The rise of disinformation campaigns or “fake news,” often spread via social media, is increasingly causing a headache for companies around the world. In its 2019 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that one of the most widespread and disruptive impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years has been its role in the rise of “media echo chambers and fake news,” a risk threat fueled by social media that 69% of respondents said they expected to increase even more over the course of the year.

WEF researchers studied the trajectories of 126,000 tweets and found that those containing disinformation consistently outperformed those containing the truth—reaching an average of 1,500 people six times more quickly. One reason for the rapid spread is that disinformation tends to evoke more potent emotions than the truth does. “Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust,” the WEF reported.

Other research has come to similar conclusions. In its Global Fraud and Risk Report last September, corporate investigation specialist and risk consultancy Kroll found that 84% of businesses felt threatened by market manipulation through the spread of disinformation, most commonly fueled by “adversarial” social media, which featured in 27% of corporate incidents in the past year. It was the first time the survey has polled companies specifically about the threat from social media.

It can be very difficult to determine the source of these stories and just as hard to find those responsible. “Very often, the perpetrators want to manipulate the market and sow consumer confusion, and disparaging a company is a simple way of doing it,” said Betsy Blumenthal, senior managing director in the business intelligence and investigations practice at Kroll. “It’s often very difficult to tell whether these stories are mischievous, malicious or the work of professional clickbaiters hired by rival companies. Bringing them to justice can also be difficult as they may not even be operating on the same continent.”

The Proliferation of Disinformation

Many of the world’s best-known companies have had to fight fires caused by false stories going viral. In 2017, Starbucks fell victim to disinformation when tweets advertising “Dreamer Day,” complete with the company logo, signature font, photos of its drinks and the hashtag “#borderfreecoffee,” went viral. The apparent promotion claimed the company was giving free frappuccinos to undocumented immigrants in the United States. The campaign was “completely false,” Starbucks explained on Twitter as part of its rapid response.

In January 2019, investment management firm BlackRock was the victim of a hoax when a spoof letter was released around the time of the firm’s quarterly earnings announcement. Purportedly written by BlackRock’s chief executive, Larry Fink, the letter warned that the firm would dump companies that did not take decisive action on tackling climate change. Suspected to be the work of environmental campaigners, the letter fooled some legitimate news outlets, including the Financial Times. (In January 2020, Fink released a real letter saying that the firm would disinvest from companies that were not seriously tackling sustainability and environmental, social and governance risks).

The problem is hardly limited to the United States. Last May, Metro Bank in the United Kingdom saw its share price drop 11% after false rumors circulated on WhatsApp and Twitter that the bank was close to collapse and that customers should empty their accounts as soon as possible.

While these examples illustrate the damage that disinformation can cause, there is perhaps one area where the deliberate spread of false information is the most dangerous: personal health care. In December, Facebook removed advertisements claiming that HIV prevention medicines like Truvada had harmful side-effects. Fifty health and LGBTQ groups argued in an open letter to Facebook that the ads, which came from law firms attempting to convince gay and bisexual men to join medical negligence lawsuits, went beyond misinformation to “put people’s lives in imminent danger.”

Contrary to the ads, medical studies show that such drugs are not only safe, but that they work: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has said that PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) drugs are “highly effective for preventing HIV from sex and injection drug use.” The letter to Facebook read, “By allowing these advertisements to persist on their platforms, Facebook and Instagram are convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections. You are harming public health.”

The impact that disinformation can have on a company’s reputation—as well as on its share price and bottom line—should not be underestimated. In 2016, the share price of French construction company Vinci dropped by almost a fifth after a hoax press release claimed that it had fired its chief financial officer and misstated its results (three years later, news outlet Bloomberg was fined €5 million by French regulators for reporting the false story without checking the facts). More generally, academic research by the University of Baltimore has conservatively estimated the cost of disinformation to the global economy to be more than $78 billion a year.

Research cited by internet analysis firm MOZ has found that companies risk losing 22% of their business if potential customers find just one negative article on the first page of their internet search results. This figure balloons up to 70% if four or more negative stories are found on the same page (regardless of whether the information is true, false or simply an adverse opinion). When the majority of people rely on the internet for information and news—and companies now spend more on online marketing than on ads in traditional media—a rush of negative stories can have an immediate, and almost certain, detrimental effect.

Academics, psychologists and other experts have found that disinformation can be very difficult to correct and may have lasting effects even after the story is discredited. Companies also face the risk that denying the false story could inadvertently give it credence, fueling the rumors even more. For example, people who have never heard the myth that vaccines cause autism may find that encountering a correction of this falsehood signals that someone once believed, or still believes, that vaccines are dangerous. It gets worse if the people or organizations spouting the lie are authority figures, because people are more inclined to believe and trust them.

Fighting the Fakes

While disinformation may “fizzle and die,” if such stories do start to spread, public relations and crisis communications experts recommend killing them quickly with alternate, causal explanations. It is also best to provide a detailed refutation, debunking the myths line by line rather than issuing a simple “X is not true” refutation.

If disinformation gains attention, it is important to rebut the claims quickly—and with vigor and supporting evidence, said James Fitzpatrick, senior consultant at crisis communications specialist Right Angles. He added that the speed of a company’s response is critical to successfully stopping fake news or disinformation spreading uncontrollably.

“Put the fire out while you still can,” he said. “Make sure the organization has media monitoring set up so it notices any issues as soon as possible, and have a pre-approved, clear plan for how the organization will respond, and who will take responsibility and lead in that response. Any response plan should be reviewed and practiced.”

It is important for companies to establish themselves as the “go-to” news source by creating their own news/blog channel on their website, with multiple social accounts linking to it, and post to it regularly. “By posting regular, transparent and high-quality content to a news channel that you own and moderate, you should be able to build an audience who know where to go for the latest news about your company or your industry,” Fitzpatrick said. “The alternative is that you leave an information vacuum that other sources will be more than happy to fill on your behalf, which is less than ideal.”

Companies should also “arm their key stakeholders with the facts,” he said. “Your staff, shareholders, customers, and suppliers can be your most powerful ambassadors. Before all else, make sure they know the facts of the situation and what you’re doing to help resolve it.”

It is also vital that companies hit by disinformation adopt the same search engine optimization (SEO) tactics used by their sales and marketing teams. “If ‘fake news’ starts spreading about your company, make sure you post your side of the story to your regular news platform and use SEO to ensure that it’s appearing at the top of Google and social search results for that topic,” Fitzpatrick said.

According to Chris Walker, director of public relations firm Be the Best Communications, there are four key steps to counter disinformation: 1) identify the source; 2) challenge it; 3) take it to the top; and 4) tell your narrative instead. “You need to identify the source of the story,” he said. “Check the media outlet, research the author and verify if there are any supporting sources. Is the news story properly bylined by a bona fide, named journalist writing for a credible news organization? If the story isn’t from a credible, qualified news outlet and it isn’t satirical, there’s a strong chance it’s a fake.”

The next step is to challenge the source of fake news to reveal what factual evidence the publisher has to back up its claim. “Is the evidence corroborated? If the originator of the fake news is a bona fide news outlet and a genuine mistake has been made, consider using professional PR representation to improve and maintain your long-term relationship with a media outlet rather than burn your bridges,” Walker said.

For any response to work, executive involvement is key. “If the threat is serious and sustained enough, your response should have the buy-in of the executive leadership team, with your response to be published on traditional media and social media, with one of the organization’s most senior spokespeople available for broadcast media,” he said.

The last step is for companies to tell their own story. “Facts are more impressive than fiction, so use them to tell your side of the story and to make sure you have the more powerful and compelling narrative,” Walker said. “Gather evidence that demonstrates your organization’s commitment to doing the right thing.”

While stamping out fires is the most obvious and sensible course of action, savvy companies may be able to turn a bad situation to their advantage.  Helen Croydon, founder of Thought Leadership PR, advised that companies should consider the potential upside of disinformation: the opportunity to get ahead of the news cycle, debunk the story, and attempt to get the public on their side.

“If you are a multinational company, the fact that you’ve been ‘fake-newsed’ is news, so you should issue a press release about it,” she said. “Then talk will soon be about how the company has been the victim of a scam, so it will get the public on your side.”

Companies should try to maximize publicity from such an incident—so long as that publicity is positive and controlled, she said. Writing and placing opinion or advice pieces about the incident from top executives is one way to move forward. Alternatively, companies can generate their own content by writing an account on their own websites, blogs and social media pages.

“Don’t be bitter,” Croydon said. “Give the reader an objective account about the impact it has had on your team—perhaps even bring out humor, if the fake news story is ridiculous enough. Then you can tweet and share that post like crazy and the public will be reading your account of the fake news experience, not the fake news itself.”

Reputation Matters

Some companies will weather the storm better than others. Companies may have an easier time discounting the stories if they take their corporate reputations seriously, have good track records regarding corporate ethics and sustainability, and have enjoyed fair and even positive press coverage and customer reviews. This may be harder if a company is known for cost-cutting, dumping employees and being hit with penalties or legal claims.

“Respected companies will suffer less from a fake news attack, while no one’s going to care about a company or individual that’s just out for themselves,” said Lief Anya Schneider, a corporate communication and reputation management advisor. “There is increasing support for sustainable business models and a belief that companies have to prove that there’s a wider purpose in their existence than profit. It is important to communicate what you as a firm are contributing to the well-being of society, to the environment, to the world at large that is so significant that it would be a bad thing for you to be unfairly impacted by a fake news story.”

Companies can regain public trust more readily if they have embedded good corporate cultures where executives set the tone and the accepted standards of behavior can regain public trust more readily. Additionally, if companies have high customer satisfaction rates, clients are more likely to disregard disinformation, and even rally to the company’s defense. “It is important to have a policy and culture of transparency, including admitting fault early,” she said. “If your organization has a track record of openness and honest disclosure, stakeholders are more likely to spot fake news early. Being secretive or inscrutable hands the narrative over to others, malignant or otherwise.”

Companies that engage with the media, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders often and openly have a better chance of debunking false stories because they are perceived as having nothing to hide. “Invite stakeholders in—engage with them often,” Schneider said. “Take their feedback and implement it where appropriate. Make them part of who you are as a company or organization. Obscurity means that, if fake news happens, those tasked with rooting out wrongdoers will be obliged to investigate to see if it has value. If you’ve already been examined by everyone and are trusted, less damage from any ‘mud sticking’ will occur and vindication will be far quicker.”

The problem of disinformation is not going away soon—largely because it is so easy to initiate, and just as easy to get away with. Consequently, companies need to accept that they could become a victim at any time. A well-prepared crisis response plan will help steer the organization through the worst of it, but more than that, having a good reputation, high levels of trust, strong customer support, and an open and transparent relationship with regulatory agencies and the media may even prevent these stories before they even get started.

Neil Hodge is a U.K.-based freelance journalist and photographer.