The TechCrunch Global Affairs project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech industry and global politics.
When the term disinformation became mainstream after the 2016 election, it was largely in reference to state actors targeting political campaigns. Despite government vigilance and many efforts, the nature of the threat continues to evolve faster than democracies can adapt. State actors, for-profit disinformation companies, and ideologically motivated individuals spread disinformation that targets businesses, individuals, and governments alike.
Now that the election year in the United States is well underway and the tumultuous changes in the geopolitical landscape are underway, we anticipate an increase in disinformation campaigns targeting democratic institutions and private sector entities. With stalled regulation and limited government protection, businesses must confront today’s threat themselves if they are to protect their ability to operate tomorrow.
In the past two years alone, misinformation campaigns have caused significant damage to brand, reputation and value. In 2020, online retailer Wayfair saw an attempt by QAnon conspiracy theorists – who gained notoriety for targeting politicians with baseless accusations of bribery and abuse – to convince consumers that the company was doing child trafficking with its furniture deliveries. These ridiculous claims were ignored by many, but believed enough to have inspired calls for boycotts, attempts to manipulate the value of company shares, posting of physical locations of home and office addresses executives and efforts to disrupt call center operations by flooding the phone. lines.
More recently, disinformation campaigns have leveraged false narratives about pharmaceutical companies, driven crypto and coin scams, and attempted to manipulate consumer confidence in high-tech solutions, such as space technologies, electric vehicles and vaccines. In just one example, our organization, Alethea Group, conducted an investigation in 2020 in which we assessed that a network operated by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and former President Trump adviser Steve Bannon was manipulating QAnon-related conversations in the purpose of propagating electoral conspiracies. But the network wasn’t just targeting the election, it also mentioned leading private companies and brands, including travel and hospitality, food, beverage and tech companies.
While the threat has evolved, regulations governing the digital space have not kept pace, and the agencies that have historically sought to defend us against misinformation face an asymmetry that is difficult to overcome on their own. A combination of legislative and bureaucratic inertia, limitations on social media data collection, and a failure to develop new technological solutions tailored to the threat has only exacerbated this asymmetry, with government entities often having insufficient resources to defend against the entire threat landscape.
If organizations cannot rely on government to defend them in the digital sphere, the private sector must take the lead in protecting customers, employees and bottom lines. By implementing strategies to detect incipient disinformation campaigns before they gain momentum, companies can mitigate malicious attempts to manipulate their brands, reputation, stock prices, and consumer trust.
In addition to defending against reputational damage by launching fact-based, precision messaging campaigns, there are often avenues of recourse against those who launch misinformation campaigns by exposing their efforts or taking legal action. . And by sharing information with government, companies can also increase their situational awareness, enabling law enforcement and the intelligence community to work within authorities to act against those who seek to harm governments. American interests.
Disinformation is not only a threat to democracy; it is also a threat to our economy. This means that businesses and individuals – not just government agencies – have an important role to play in exposing and mitigating malign influence efforts, in protecting themselves and their economic interests, and in helping to defend our society in his outfit. Companies can act to protect consumers and shareholders in ways the government cannot, by working to uncover and expose the threat actors who target them and by seeking various remediation options ranging from actions in court for public awareness campaigns. Indeed, our collective democratic and economic interests will depend on it.