The Deep Web, Social Media and Malicious Misinformation

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

The underbelly of the internet is a puzzling and poisonous place, where illicit drugs are sold and malicious misinformation is peddled. Fake news and incendiary memes launched from the deep web can bedevil consumer brands as easily as political campaigns.

Traditional communication responses to social media laced with lies is a lot bringing a fingernail clipper to a knife fight. New techniques are needed to fight back.

Richard Edelman, CEO of his eponymous PR firm, wrote a recent blog titled, “Understanding the Deep Web.” In it he advised, “In the battle for truth, a company must make its voice heard as quickly as it can. It’s a necessity to get out in front of a situation rather than play from behind.”

However, even a quick response may not be an adequate defense. In his blog, Edelman shares observations about fake news from Sharb Farjami, CEO of Storyful, which bills itself as a “social media intelligence agency.”

Storyful’s website offers an apocalyptic vision of contemporary social media: 

“Social media is not what it was eight years ago. The landscape is more complex and volatile, the stakes are higher, and the needs of business and media increasingly diverse. The weaponization of bots and misinformation, the impact of disinformation on elections and businesses, the threat eyewitnesses face when they capture and share current events –these are only a few of the features of the modern social landscape.”

We can argue over how things got this bad, but it is more productive to consider how to cope in this treacherous environment. Here are some of Farjami’s suggestions, as shared by Edelman:

  • Fake news often reaches traditional media via “feeders” lurking in the Deep Web, including on “fringe networks such as Gab, 4Chan and 8Chan.” Farjami quotes Wired as noting there may be “480,000 alt-right provocateurs [just] on the Gab site.”

  • Online provocateurs like to newsjack high-profile events to use as conduits for misinformation or an excuse to bash a brand. Within 48 hours after Nike launched its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, “racially charged memes” appeared on 4Chan and later gravitated to Facebook.

  • A favorite technique of Deep Web denizens is to make up controversies, such as falsely linking the 5G network to cancer and vaccines to birth defects.

Edelman says active brands aren’t able to avoid controversy involving political, social or cultural issues. They don’t need to step out into the conversation; the conversation can find them through the Deep Web.

While this may seem like a problem affecting only big brands, it isn’t. Much misinformation is transmitted in words, but the ability to show out-of-context or doctored video is quickly evolving. What people see in picture or video can quickly transmogrify into mischievous misinformation. With virtually everyone possessing a smartphone, the threat extends well beyond the Nikes and Starbucks of the world.

A new dimension of social media engagement may be social media intelligence gathering so you know when a tsunami from the Deep Web is headed your way and you still have some time to react.


Ethical Slips and Spoiled Reputations

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

The FIFA bribery scandal serves as a stark reminder that corruption is a fact of life. How you respond can color your reputation permanently. Failing to consider what is and isn't ethical can be a reputation spoiler.

The Portland Business Journal reported that one alleged kickback scheme in the FIFA scandal involved a footwear and apparel deal signed by Brazil's national soccer team in 1996. That was the same year Nike signed a major contract with Brazil, which solidified its status as a "major player in the global soccer market."

Nike issued a statement saying none of its employees were aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback schemes cited in indictments against FIFA officials. The company said it "strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery."

A former City of Portland employee is in jail after admitting he took money and free trips worth more than $200,000 to steer parking meter contracts to two businesses.

Corruption can occur when an official has decision-making power on a significant policy or lucrative contract. The corruption can be by the official with the leverage or a company or organization seeking to exploit that leverage.

Corruption is an addictive slippery slope. A small favor here, bending the rules a little there serves as an invitation to ask for bigger favors and more bent rules. It becomes harder to say no. Even if you try to say no, earlier transgressions become reverse leverage that forces you to descend deeper into corruption. It becomes easier to rationalize that a little grease is needed to make the wheel go round.

The stakes for how you respond to a "tempting offer" can be huge. Failure to gain a permit. Loss of a contract. Dissolution of a business relationship. Dismissal from a job. Corruption is serious business.

Whistleblowers risk a lot when they point out misbehavior or unmask cultures of corruption. Many whistleblowers are called snitches and shunned. Some lose their jobs and, incredibly, their reputations. You can understand why many people who see wrongdoing just turn and walk away.

However, there is no excuse for closing your ideas to potential corrosive practices. Taking stock of your own ethical standards and sharing those principles with your team members can erase gray areas or fuzziness in behavior. Letting employees know they won't be punished for behaving ethically, even if it means losing a contract or a policy debate, can have a powerful influence on morale and company culture.

Your assignment may be to manage an issue. But your overall objective should always be to manage your reputation. 

Content, Engagement Key Tools in Crisis

Content and engagement are often overlooked assets in responding to a crisis.Digital media can play a pivotal role in any crisis response, but its role is enhanced if a website is more than an electronic brochure and social media a megaphone for marketing messages.

A website with meaty content is a better vehicle for responding in a crisis because it offers context and a point of view. Your crisis response can follow in the tracks of your ongoing narrative and reflect the values you have espoused. It gives readers a compass, not just a platform.

Likewise, engaging social media affords your crisis response a familiar voice. This can avert stiff, legalistic-sounding apologies, which sound formulaic and inauthentic.

When Nike faced sharp criticism for its offshore manufacturing contracts, the Beaverton-based sports apparel company converted its online business presence into a forum to describe what it was doing to improve the lives of foreign workers. This was a more meaningful and tangible response than a program tucked away in a corporate social responsibility brochure. It certainly had more positive impact than ignoring the criticism.