Dark PR: Disinformation for Hire

Disinformation, or the intentional spread of false information, is not new. However, the use of social media platforms and big data have elevated the issue to much more concerning levels, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal brought to light following the 2016 election.

As an active member of the National Press Club’s Communicators Committee, I recently helped to put together the first in a series of critical conversations on disinformation, who is doing it, how it is being done, and what can be done about it.  

We assembled a fascinating array of panelists, who each provided insight into the issue from their unique vantage point:

  • Dr. Emma Briant, author and visiting research associate in Human Rights at Bard College;
  • Brittany Kaiser, co-founder of Own Your Own Data Foundation;
  • Wendell Potter, former health insurance communications executive and whistleblower;
  • Craig Silverman, media editor of BuzzFeed and expert on disinformation and fake news.

The event was moderated by former journalist and colleague Debra Silimeo, president of The Silimeo Group, who opened with a few sobering facts:

  • Lies travel about six times faster than the truth.
  • In 2016, fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. (Buzzfeed)
  • Foreign and domestic actors are engaging in “narrative laundering,” supercharging misleading stories with real documents.
  • A new breed of PR firms proudly uses tools to change reality according to their clients’ wishes.

Panelists talked about the “weaponization” of false and misleading information and how people are being increasingly manipulated by these “sophisticated actors,” noting that there is an entire industry behind creating fake news sites that is powerful and largely unaccountable.

The biggest platform, Facebook, is one of the major culprits in helping to spread fake news and disinformation, said Kaiser, who is a strong advocate of digital and media literacy training for everyone.

Potter talked about “front groups” that are pouring “massive amounts of money” to influence elections and change the narrative about important conversations, such as healthcare. The problem, he said, goes well beyond social media’s influence, pointing out that traditional media is also being used to disseminate propaganda.

One the positive side, Silverman said there has been “an awakening” about the seriousness of the spread of disinformation which, he said, has gotten even worse since the 2016 election. For their part, newsrooms have ramped up their fact checking.

Panelists touched on a range of solutions, including the following:

  • making a concerted effort to expose the “bad actors;”
  • holding platforms that spread disinformation accountable;
  • establishing real enforcement in industry guidelines, such as PRSA’s Code of Ethics; and
  • training and educating the public about how to navigate digital media and emphasize the importance of “lateral reading” to verify the accuracy of what they are reading.

You can listen to the 75-minute panel discussion here: https://www.press.org/events/dark-pr-disinformation-hire.

Tune in on Oct. 15, where we will be hosting a second panel discussion to continue the conversation and dive deeper into what can be done to curb the spread of disinformation. Click here to register:  https://www.press.org/events/dark-pr-part-ii-disarming-disinformation.