The Growing Disinformation Industry

A recent investigation published by the New York Times International reporter Mark Fisher showed how after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the phenomenon of targeted disinformation strategies grew substantially at a global level, as well as the scope of the agencies dedicated to this dark business [1].

Why is the Disinformation industry a threat to humanity?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

In 2018 the CEO of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to appear before the United States Senate, to clarify the global scandal raised around the English consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, accused by the British justice that same year, of using without permission alleged information from Facebook users to generate almost personalized electoral political campaigns. This brought to the headlines many issues that are by no means new in the sector, but that used to pass strangely distant from the great debates in the media.

Zuckerberg had to give explanations to U.S. senators on issues that even for him were highly complex to address, but that ultimately referred to the privacy of users in social media and the disinformation to which they are exposed and how this can end up influencing cross-cutting issues for a country in the presidential elections.

In simple terms, the algorithm developed by Cambridge Analytica allowed the elaboration of psychological profiles of users, based on the “likes” given to certain types of content, as well as the comments made and the advertisements consumed.

From this information, the British consulting firm profiled the undecided voters in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil and certain Caribbean Islands, to direct with fake news, their voting intentions and thus flip the outcome of the elections.

As a result of this scandal, the British consulting firm was forced to close its operations, while justice continues with the investigation. However, this did not mean the end of the era of disinformation on the Internet, but as evidenced recently by an investigation published by the New York Times, it was the starting point for many other organizations to follow the example of Cambridge Analytica[2].

The New York Times Investigation

Mark Fisher, one of the most prestigious journalists of the New York Times, published a recent investigation called: “The Dark Business of Disinformation on Demand“, in which he details how the growing business of disinformation is increasing around the world.

Among other issues, the journalist recounts how in May 2021, several notable social media influencers in both France and Germany received a strange proposal from a supposedly London-based PR agency with links to Russia that offered to pay them a considerable sum of money to promote very specific messages on behalf of a client.

The proposal included a perfectly worded three-page document, which additionally detailed the information they were to publish and on which platforms to say so [3].

Up to this point there would be nothing suspicious, were it not for the fact that the request was not advertising, but openly focused on spreading falsehoods about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19.

Outraged, some of the influencers who received the offer, published screenshots of the message sent by the alleged agency, which, upon being exposed to public ridicule, cleaned all their accounts on social networks and disappeared without leaving any trace for the British authorities, however, that same week, several influencers of Brazilian origin close to Bolsonaro and Indians close to the government, published videos, which reproduced almost to the letter, the instructions originally given by the alleged agency Fazze.

Thanks to the journalist’s research, he concludes that this is not an isolated event, but a giant growth industry around the world:

“The scheme appears to be part of a secretive industry that security analysts and American officials say is exploding in scale: disinformation for hire.

Private firms, straddling traditional marketing and the shadow world of geopolitical influence operations, are selling services once conducted principally by intelligence agencies.

They sow discord, meddle in elections, seed false narratives and push viral conspiracies, mostly on social media. And they offer clients something precious: deniability.”

Mark Fisher of the New York Times[4].

In this regard, Graham Brookie, who is the director of the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory of the Atlantic Council, said to the NYT, that “Some governments or actors close to governments are increasingly hiring agents to disinform and it is a serious situation”, for Brokkie it is a “booming industry” [5].

The investigations carried out by Fisher in the New York Times conclude that the main sources of disinformation are promoted by radical groups and in some countries such as India, Egypt, Iraq, Bolivia, Ukraine or Venezuela, by the governments themselves.

A New Way of Governing           

The New York Times investigation concludes that a new generation of populist leaders, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, have risen, to a large extent, to power thanks to the manipulation of citizens through fake news on Social Media, being the most serious thing that once they are in government, many institutionalize these methods as tools of public communication or even foreign relations.

One of the most emblematic cases analyzed in the investigated by the New York Times, is from India, where a significant number of Twitter accounts, owned by the government, have shared publications of India Vs Disinformation, a website and a series of accounts on social networks that pretend to make verifications of news data in India, but which in reality is a communications firm, allegedly Canadian called Press Monitor, which would be essentially dedicated to the creation of disinformation campaigns.

Almost all publications seek to discredit or muddy unfavorable reporting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, including the serious damage of COVID-19 in the country. One partner site promotes pro-Modi narratives disguised as news articles. [6]

In conclusion, The Cambridge Analytica case, not only represented a dark episode in the history of social media, but became a new paradigm for the manipulation of citizens, especially those with low levels of schooling, laying the foundation for a thriving growth industry, in which dozens of unethical press and media agencies offer their services to systematically misinform, sacrificing not only the truth, but putting at risk the hard-won social and civil liberties acquired in the West, by civil society.

[1] Investigation carried out by journalist Max Fisher of the North American newspaper: The New York Times on the growing business of disinformation.

[2] Investigation carried out by journalist Max Fisher of the North American newspaper: The New York Times on the growing business of disinformation.

[3] Research conducted by journalist Max Fisher of the North American newspaper: The New York Times on the growing business of disinformation.

[4] Interview with Brokkie in The New York Times.

[5] Investigation carried out by journalist Max Fisher of the North American newspaper: The New York Times on the growing business of disinformation.

[6] Investigation carried out by journalist Max Fisher of the North American newspaper: The New York Times about the growing business of disinformation.