Public relations companies long have been known for reshaping perceptions to favor their clients. Taking that practice to an extreme, some now engage in “black PR” — that is, the calculated spread of disinformation and misinformation online, according to a Buzzfeed report published Monday.
For example, Taiwan-based entrepreneur Peng Kuan Chin’s “Content Farm Automatic Collection System” harvests online articles and posts written in Chinese, reshapes them, and posts them on websites under its control.
Thousands of fake social media accounts owned by his company, Bravo-Idea, then spread this manipulated content across the Internet.
“We see a lot of these black PR firms,” remarked Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.
“A lot of them work today in local politics with big developers, lobbyists fighting individual activists and so on,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
The Evil That Black PR Does
Nearly 70 percent of 6,100-plus Americans who participated in a Pew Research Center poll last year said that fake news greatly affected their confidence in government institutions. Fifty-four percent said it hurt their confidence in other people.
About 60 percent blamed political figures and their staff, and 53 percent blamed activists. Seventy-nine percent believed steps should be taken to restrict fake news.
Black PR “is manipulation at scale for money without any concerns for the damage to the planet, country, or even individual safety,” observed Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group.
“The danger is not only the damage this does, but given people don’t like to be made fools of, the repercussions when they find out they were played,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Recall what happened with Gawker and Peter Thiel,” Enderle said.
Where Black PR Is Going
Black PR per se is not new. For example, Hill & Knowlton famously orchestrated fake testimony about Iraqi troop atrocities in Kuwait that helped push the U.S. to launch the Gulf War.
The Internet has made it easier, and much cheaper, to publish and disseminate misinformation and disinformation, however.
Last year, 19 online information operations were attributed partially or wholly to PR or marketing firms, according to a Buzzfeed review . Since 2011, there have been 27 such operations.
The black PR market is growing, and likely will expand through the 2020 U.S. election year,” said Mike Jude, research director at IDC.
Fighting Black PR
Closing down accounts of people or organizations disseminating misinformation “isn’t enough, because they just pivot to a new account,” Enderle said. “Eventually, we’ll use artificial intelligence for this, but the corrective tools are lagging at the moment.”
Tech companies are fighting back. Twitter last month announced the removal of more than 5,000 accounts involved in a state-backed information operation.
Facebook has taken a series of actions:
- Last month, it took down hundreds of accounts, pages and groups in two unconnected networks conducting operations on Facebook and Instagram;
- Last spring, it banned Israeli black PR firm Archimedes Group for creating hundreds of fake social media accounts to influence elections in various countries; and
- Early last year, it banned Philippine digital marketing company Twinmark Media Enterprises and its subsidiaries from its platform for coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Facebook, Google and Twitter last year teamed up with the BBC and publishers to fight fake news.
The Dangers Black PR Poses
“No market expands forever,” IDC’s Jude told the E-Commerce Times. “To the extent that black PR begins to do serious damage to individuals, expect governments to step in.”
Germany, Malaysia, France, Russia, Singapore and China have made it a crime to create and distribute misinformation.
The EU in 2018 introduced a voluntary code of practice to battle online disinformation. Facebook and other tech companies have signed on.
Australia has pressured tech companies to fight fake news.
“Actively censoring the news feeds to protect people from their own ignorance seems a bit extreme,” Jude suggested. “Turn the trial lawyers loose on this space and establish a few landmark cases, and I think the problem will be greatly diminished.”
The Possibility of Self-Policing
Meanwhile, the PR industry is trying to police itself.
ICCO, the International Communications Consultancy Organization — an umbrella group representing PR trade groups around the world — has established the Helsinki Declaration, 10 principles it urges member groups to support.
ICCO also has a page on ethics in digital communication on its website.
In 2017, the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association expelled London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger for stoking racial tensions in South Africa for a billionaire client.
“The answer isn’t more centralization,” Constellation’s Wang said. “It’s more decentralization that allows individuals to report fakes to others who will also apply techniques and algorithms to be vigilant.”