Three Types of Disinformation Campaigns that Target Corporations

by | Aug 4, 2020 | Blog

In 2018, The Washington Post named “misinformation” its “word of the year.” In 2019, NPR labelled “disinformation” the same.

Then 2020 happened. Many of the disinformation actors taking advantage of the combination of a global pandemic and major US political cycle are nation-state backed or otherwise seeking to accomplish geopolitical goals. This type of disinformation affects us all and rightly requires intense focus and collaboration across many industries and both the private and public sectors, and precisely because many of the actors are geopolitical, the problem feels intractable.

Out of the limelight, however, disinformation targeting individual companies is also on the rise. These campaigns can even include tactics used to sew confusion for political purposes, and some of the digital mercenaries that carry out geopolitical campaigns can be found and hired online for apolitical purposes.

Unlike those involved in political disinformation, however, the actors that are responsible for campaigns targeting companies may have two attributes that make them easier to thwart:

Financial motivations and a presence in the United States

For those actors motivated by money, if a victim can take steps to increase the time and expense required for a campaign to succeed, an attacker may move on to an easier target.

For those actors in the United States, civil and even criminal litigation may be realistic options for a victim’s legal team once a specific attacker or group of attackers have been identified.

With that in mind, it is important for companies that believe they may be the victim of a coordinated disinformation campaign to understand what they are up against and take action.

As a baseline, here are three common types of disinformation campaigns targeting corporate America:

Financially Motivated Disinformation

These campaigns, often referred to as “short and distort” campaigns, involve financially-motivated individuals spreading lies or doctored facts about a company, normally to depress its publicly traded stock.

Individual actors may work in tandem with each other, and often use social media and stock-specific forums and blogs to spread their message. In some cases, they will also conduct email, phone, and in-person campaigns to directly reach influential recipients like major investors or key partners of their target company.

The goal of these campaigns is normally for the actors to make money.

A well-publicized example of this type of campaign, the TSLAQ community on Twitter, has become infamous for its use of aggressive tactics to attempt to uncover and spread negative news about Tesla. If TSLAQ were successful, would-be investors in Tesla would be scared off, the stock price would plummet, and the TSLAQ members who hold short positions in Tesla would profit.

Activist Campaigns

Activism is rightly another major trend in 2020, which has opened the door for malicious actors. These types of disinformation campaigns can be particularly challenging to understand if the actors behind them are hijacking broader legitimate activist campaigns.

Sometimes, companies can even be collateral damage of activist disinformation, as was the case when Target shoppers found their diaper boxes stuffed with anti-vaxx material and Wayfair got wrapped up in a QAnon conspiracy.

For many companies that are the targets of activism, the key is to separate fact from fiction and understand who the malicious actors may be.

In these cases, it is particularly important to identify the initial seeds of disinformation, which may later be spread by legitimate activists as well as malicious actors. Knowing who started the spread of disinformation can help a company understand an actor’s motivations.

With an understanding of the falsehoods and actors pushing them, a public relations team may be able to control the narrative to both address legitimate activists and keep the disinformation campaign at bay.

Competitive Disinformation

It might seem unlikely that a business competitor would take sales and marketing competition to the level of a sophisticated disinformation campaign, but even some of the largest companies in the US have been discovered sponsoring such activity in the past.

For those companies that do cross the line, it will likely be done through a cut-out. The campaign may also take longer to develop since company executives sponsoring the campaign are less likely to emphatically determine they want to conduct disinformation from the onset than they are to slowly cross blurry lines until an opportunity to gain an edge has become full-on disinformation sponsorship.

As in the example above, funding a non-profit escalated into funding a disinformation campaign. The non-profit would appear at first glance to be an activist group, but upon further investigation there was more to the story.