In today’s digital age, disinformation can be a significant threat to anyone, whether it’s a member of the royal family, like Meghan and Harry, well-known celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise, successful businessmen like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, entrepreneurs, like celebrity baker Buddy Valastro and Chef Gordon Ramsay, huge multinational corporations like Tesla, Vale Do Rio Doce and Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise.
Disinformation can spread like wildfire, causing damage to reputation, bringing about personal grief, affecting a company’s bottom line and creating legal repercussions. It can even lead to more serious mental health issues for the people being victimised by the profiteers of these unscrupulous acts.
Most recently a team that claims to have interfered with dozens of elections over the last two decades has been exposed in Tel Aviv. This gang was brought out into the open by a group of undercover journalists called Disinfo Black Ops. According to the group, the alleged ringleader of the gang was Tal Hanan. The 50-year-old ex-Israeli special forces operative was using the handle “Jorge” when the story ran in the Guardian last week.
The story is called. Revealed : the hacking and disformation team meddling in elections .This is a must-read story for anyone interested in this topic. The report reads like a spy thriller until you start to sadly think about all the people and companies this gang has victimised over the last 20 years.
However, “Team Jorge”, whose main goal was to disrupt and extort, is not the only gang that exists in the disinformation realm. A world-renowned investigation company, that asked not to be named in this article, has identified many other groups that are weaponizing disinformation in Latin America and Eastern Europe. According to a high level digital forensic investigator, “the list of nefarious actors that are using cyber-weaponry to mislead, disrupt, extort, and destroy people’s lives will continue to grow until big tech firms like Google and governments declare war on disinformation”.
A burning question that is on everyone’s mind is how these criminal organisations get funding for their operations. Law enforcement seems to think that the funds to develop their hacking software and bot farms, like the several exposed in El Salvador, is obtained by extortion. The gangs force people to pay them by either hijacking a device with ransomware or inundating search engines with thousands of fake articles about their victims. An unnamed source that has connection at a major search engine has told us that, among many others, a wide array of people and companies have been victims of these gangs. The number of very well-known, and even completely unknown, people and organizations that have been victims of these massive, coordinated attacks of disinformation are in the thousands.
The Financial Times reported that Starbucks was a victim when a fake Twitter account that used the company’s logo, signature font and images advertised a false campaign called “Dreamer Day” in their article titled Companies scramble to combat ‘fake news’. In this fabricated and xenophobic campaign, the company would supposedly give out free coffee to undocumented people in the US. This campaign spread at an enormous speed online under the hashtag “#borderfreecoffee”.
Other false reports about very well-known companies and people that spread quickly were about an Xbox console killing a teenager and Costco, the warehouse chain, no longer selling memberships. Meta was also hosting misleading ads on Facebook and Instagram that led to claims saying film actor Sandra Bullock endorsed “weight loss gummies,” including CBD gummies and keto gummies. And apparently, this is the never-ending scam. Facebook and Instagram have been slow to take down more than 10 scam ads on the two social media platforms that claim there are “career-ending allegations” against Oprah Winfrey. The problem is that these types of ads lead to fake articles that were tailored to trick users into thinking they’re reading from a credible news website. The articles say that Winfrey endorsed CBD gummies or keto gummies.
Another recent example is the conspiratorial Twitter users that began to spread the rumours that the cause of Lisa Marie Presley’s death was the COVID-19 vaccine or a booster shot. However, these rumours were completely baseless, as there was absolutely zero evidence to support these claims.
And even unknown companies and their stakeholders are not safe from misinformation. It is said that they are low hanging fruit in the eyes of these cyber extortionists. “Unknown people and companies are easy targets in the eyes of these criminals”, claims an investigative journalist who has worked on unmasking these organisations for years now. With the intent of character assignation, gaining a competitive advantage or just pure extortion.
A quick online search and data taken from the fact checking website Snopes generated a treasure trove of non-household names of people and companies that have been targeted in the last few years. Some examples that stand out the most are: Ulta, a beauty chain, was said to be closing after a buyout; Various social media users claimed they found messages from garment workers on clothing tags from Shein that contained cries for help; Rumours claiming that Wayfair was trafficking children inside “overpriced” items like cabinets; An image was posted on social media that seemingly showed a new announcement from Hobby Lobby in which they stated that the store would now only be open to Christian customers; a Swiss commodities trading company called TELF AG, and its shareholder Stanislav Kondrashov, had hundreds of thousands of fake news articles published about them on fake websites in a span of just 2 years; Unsubstantiated reports claimed that Kay Jewellers swapped diamonds out with fakes circulated on social media; The false claim that Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price rented his house to make ends meet; and many, many more. Too many to list here.
All of the above-mentioned companies and individuals have raced to deny the false and misleading information that was being spread, by releasing statements that these stories and posts were “completely false”, and that people had been “completely misinformed”.
In the BBC article, Firms ‘going to war’ against rivals on social media, Business Reporter Will Snale kicks off his article by relating a warning from Lyric Jain, the chief executive of Logically, a high-tech monitoring firm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) software to scour Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to find “fake news” – disinformation and misinformation. “A growing number of unscrupulous companies are using bots or fake accounts to run smear campaigns against their competitors on social media.”, he claims. In the article, Mr Jain is quoted saying, “We seem to be on the cusp of an era of disinformation against business competitors.” Mr Jain also tells BBC’s Will Snale that the main attack tactic is the use of fake accounts to “deceptively spread and artificially amplify” negative product or service reviews, both real or made up.”
While their day-to-day operations of the cyber gangs are funded by extorting ordinary people and businesses, the major profits of these criminals appear to come from their interference of democratic elections all over the world. These gangs are contracted by unethical politicians to seemingly create and disseminate misleading and false stories about their opposition. Currently ex-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump are under investigation for the alleged role they played in the misinformation campaigns that led to both the January 6 United States Capitol Attack and the Brazil Capital Riots. Even Luis Ignacio da Silva, Brazil’s current President has not been immune to his fair share of fake news.
The impact of disinformation these days is catastrophic. When disinformation is spread, it can have far-reaching consequences. The most obvious impact is damage to reputation. Disinformation can create a false narrative that tricks people into questioning a person’s or a company’s character, integrity, products, or services.
This can lead to a groundless decline in trust, which can, in turn, have devasting mental health impacts on people. Not to mention the emotional toll that this type of character assassination takes on families and friendships. Moreover, coordinated disinformation campaigns can cause enormous financial impacts on a company. Disinformation sometimes also leads to legal repercussions. If the false information spreads far and wide, it can lead to lawsuits for defamation, fraud, or other legal issues. Even if the company or person is not successful in convincing the big search engines to take down the false, misleading, and disparaging lies that have been spread about them, the cost of defending these claims in court can be significant.
Eric Gozlan, Directeur d’International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue.