In a dangerous trend, more online manipulation campaigns seek to trick mainstream news media into spreading fake news stories and misinformation. A recent report from the research institute Data and Society calls that strategy “source hacking.” The underhanded techniques hide original sources to trick news outlets into disseminating fake or slanted news reports.
Bad actors plant false information where journalists are likely to encounter it or where it will be taken up by other intermediaries. The techniques may be carefully coordinated but often rely on partisan support and buy-in from audiences, influencers and journalists.
While fake news sources typically attack politicians and political parties, they also sometimes target businesses and other organizations. More businesses, including both large corporations and smaller businesses, may become victims of fake news articles and social media misinformation campaigns, especially as more companies take stands on social or political issues. That’s why PR and corporate communications personnel must understand the latest techniques used to spread misinformation.
The report, written by misinformation experts Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg, explains four techniques of source hacking:
Viral sloganeering: repackaging and distributing slogans or talking points influences viewers, forces media coverage, and provokes institutional responses. In one example, the slogan “It’s Okay to be White” proliferated on social media, gaining coverage by mainstream media outlets, who didn’t realize the slogan was promoted by white supremacist groups.
Leaking forged documents: Sharing forged documents that seem newsworthy can prompt coverage in traditional media. Manipulators craft documents that appear to reveal damaging information about political targets and spread the forgeries through social media and alternative news outlets to attract mainstream media coverage. The forgeries can cause reputational damage even if eventually debunked.
Evidence collages: compiling information from multiple sources into a single, shareable document, usually an image. The images or “infographics” often contain a mix of verified and unverified claims. The compiled data can sway breaking reporting and encourage further citizen investigations. Fake news purveyors created such collages to perpetuate Pizzagate, a fake news story that accused prominent Democrats of committing pedophilia crimes at a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant.
Keyword squatting: creating social media accounts or content associated with specific terms to capture and control search traffic. It sometimes involves online impersonation. “While marketers have used such strategies in the past to gain attention for brands, here we see the strategic co-opting of keywords related to breaking news events, social movements, celebrities, and wedge issues,” the report states.
Recommendations for Journalists
The report recommends that:
- Journalists seek corroborating evidence when reporting on information from social media accounts and to verify identities of account holders when possible.
- Newsrooms invest more resources in information security, including creating a position to vet chains of evidence.
- Social media platforms label manipulation campaigns when they’re identified and provide easier access to metadata associated with accounts.
While it’s not clear if the terminology of source hacking will enter the lexicon of journalism or media relations, it’s clear the techniques of fake news dissemination have become more sophisticated – and will likely become even more advanced as bad actors learn new tricks to play on unsuspecting news outlets and the general public. It’s crucial for PR to consistently monitor online news and social media for brand mentions, devise a plan to respond to fake news and misinformation, and understand how misinformation can spread beyond social media and known fake news websites.
Bottom Line: New research reveals how anonymous bad actors can fool legitimate news media outlets into regurgitating misinformation and fake news stories. PR professionals can work to safeguard their organizations’ reputations by understanding those nefarious game plans.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.