Psychological warfare (PsyOps) has long been the domain of militaries around the world for decades. Now, these tactics are becoming the domain of radical activist groups and in some cases governments in the world of digital diplomacy. We are entering a new age of “disinformation warfare” where people and organisations are learning how to create “perceptions” and misdirect people, governments, law enforcement and corporations. This is the new asymmetrical communications environment. And it is going to make life a little bit more challenging.
Government & Stakeholder Relations Case Study
A couple of years ago a client’s PR agency contacted us based on some comments in a print news media article. They wanted us to look at social media and online channels to see if anything was being said about their client online. Their client was attempting to get legislation changed in their favour (they are in the extractive resources sector.) Within an hour we discovered that the eco group they’d been working with was creating false content opposing them through online channels. From doctored pictures to falsely edited videos and suspicious seeded news media comments, their supposed ally was working to defeat them. It was quite an eye opener for this client.
This is Not The Domain of Multinationals Either
If you’re reading this thinking that this only happens to multinational corporations (MNC’s) or global affairs, think again. It can be happening in your State or Province, city or town. Often times, individuals or organisations may not even realise they are conducting Disinformation Warfare tactics, but they are. In the marketing world, it might be referred to as online reputation management. But it goes beyond that to government relations, legislative issues, municipal elections or referendums.
The Battle of Perceptions
In political communications there are two key terms; 1) astroturfing and 2) sockpuppeting. Both are designed to alter perceptions to show support or opposition. This is done through manipulation of content whether it be text, audio, images or video. Usually, the manipulation is quite subtle and untraceable (at least when it comes to sockpuppeting.)
The Trust Mechanism of Reliable Sources
People tend to trust the views and opinions of friends and family first. In marketing terms, research has shown that 76% of people trust a product recommendation from a friend than an advertisement. This translates beyond marketing into every day life. We trust our friends, family and close circles more. This relates directly in social media. If we see content posted by friends and family in our trusted networks, then it is highly likely we will trust that content. This is somewhat anecdotal, but we have enough research case studies to be a strong indicator that this is so.
Playing on Trust Mechanisms
It is these trust mechanisms that clever communicators (political parties, religious groups, activist groups, rogue governments etc.) understand very well. The objective is to manipulate peoples perceptions, in small and large part. Sowing a seed of doubt is the basic objective.
Is It Disinformation Warfare that Prevalent? Do You Really Need to Care?
This kind of activity can be very subtle. For many traditional businesses such as waste disposal, mining, local manufacturing, pulp companies…the results are what speak for themselves. Unfortunately we’ve done the post-mortem analysis for a number of traditional sector businesses and governments that show them after the fact what happened in social media. How perceptions were changed and when. It is an uncomfortable reality. Here is a website that helps organisations learn misinformation tactics as an example.
The Upside of Opportunity
In some cases however, we’re able to show clients what is happening early enough. They can then take actions to turn a negative into an opportunity. But it is a risk to businesses and governments that needs to be not just in the marketing teams realm, but that of stakeholder relations, the C-Suite and policy makers within government.