Monday, July 26, 2021

New Vehicles for Disinformation Spread Unreality Online

A very interesting piece.

At NYT, "Disinformation for Hire, a Shadow Industry, Is Quietly Booming":

In May, several French and German social media influencers received a strange proposal. A London-based public relations agency wanted to pay them to promote messages on behalf of a client. A polished three-page document detailed what to say and on which platforms to say it.

But it asked the influencers to push not beauty products or vacation packages, as is typical, but falsehoods tarring Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine. Stranger still, the agency, Fazze, claimed a London address where there is no evidence any such company exists.

Some recipients posted screenshots of the offer. Exposed, Fazze scrubbed its social media accounts. That same week, Brazilian and Indian influencers posted videos echoing Fazze’s script to hundreds of thousands of viewers.

The scheme appears to be part of a secretive industry that security analysts and American officials say is exploding in scale: disinformation for hire.

Private firms, straddling traditional marketing and the shadow world of geopolitical influence operations, are selling services once conducted principally by intelligence agencies.

They sow discord, meddle in elections, seed false narratives and push viral conspiracies, mostly on social media. And they offer clients something precious: deniability.

“Disinfo-for-hire actors being employed by government or government-adjacent actors is growing and serious,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, calling it “a boom industry.”

Similar campaigns have been recently found promoting India’s ruling party, Egyptian foreign policy aims and political figures in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Mr. Brookie’s organization tracked one operating amid a mayoral race in Serra, a small city in Brazil. An ideologically promiscuous Ukrainian firm boosted several competing political parties.

In the Central African Republic, two separate operations flooded social media with dueling pro-French and pro-Russian disinformation. Both powers are vying for influence in the country.

A wave of anti-American posts in Iraq, seemingly organic, were tracked to a public relations company that was separately accused of faking anti-government sentiment in Israel.

Most trace to back-alley firms whose legitimate services resemble those of a bottom-rate marketer or email spammer.

Job postings and employee LinkedIn profiles associated with Fazze describe it as a subsidiary of a Moscow-based company called Adnow. Some Fazze web domains are registered as owned by Adnow, as first reported by the German outlets Netzpolitik and ARD Kontraste. Third-party reviews portray Adnow as a struggling ad service provider.

European officials say they are investigating who hired Adnow. Sections of Fazze’s anti-Pfizer talking points resemble promotional materials for Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine.

For-hire disinformation, though only sometimes effective, is growing more sophisticated as practitioners iterate and learn. Experts say it is becoming more common in every part of the world, outpacing operations conducted directly by governments.

The result is an accelerating rise in polarizing conspiracies, phony citizen groups and fabricated public sentiment, deteriorating our shared reality beyond even the depths of recent years.

An Open Frontier

The trend emerged after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, experts say. Cambridge, a political consulting firm linked to members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was found to have harvested data on millions of Facebook users.

The controversy drew attention to methods common among social media marketers. Cambridge used its data to target hyper-specific audiences with tailored messages. It tested what resonated by tracking likes and shares.

The episode taught a generation of consultants and opportunists that there was big money in social media marketing for political causes, all disguised as organic activity.

Some newcomers eventually reached the same conclusion as Russian operatives had in 2016: Disinformation performs especially well on social platforms.

At the same time, backlash to Russia’s influence-peddling appeared to have left governments wary of being caught — while also demonstrating the power of such operations.

“There is, unfortunately, a huge market demand for disinformation,” Mr. Brookie said, “and a lot of places across the ecosystem that are more than willing to fill that demand.”

Commercial firms conducted for-hire disinformation in at least 48 countries last year — nearly double from the year before, according to an Oxford University study. The researchers identified 65 companies offering such services.

Last summer, Facebook removed a network of Bolivian citizen groups and journalistic fact-checking organizations. It said the pages, which had promoted falsehoods supporting the country’s right-wing government, were fake.

Stanford University researchers traced the content to CLS Strategies, a Washington-based communications firm that had registered as a consultant with the Bolivian government. The firm had done similar work in Venezuela and Mexico.

A spokesman referred to the company’s statement last year saying its regional chief had been placed on leave but disputed Facebook’s accusation that the work qualified as foreign interference...

Still more.