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Disinformation – the dark side of marketing communication in the cyberspace

Disinformation is the dark side of marketing – using communication for sinister goals and creating distrust on purpose.

Published : 07.06.2022

Fake news and deepfakes, alternative truths or plain information influence. Sometimes it is loud and clear as well as easy to detect, at other times more subtle and difficult to spot. People, brands and countries can be targets of this method of psychological influence. Let’s have a closer look at the concept of disinformation.

Deliverers of deliberate distrust

Disinformation my be defined as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”. Therefore, disinformation is the dark side of marketing – using communication for sinister goals.

Disinformation is creating distrust on purpose. It is disturbing and aims to harm the recipient and the surrounding society in manipulative ways. The lives of individuals as well as the future of businesses and countries are at stake.

Digitally disseminated disinformation campaigns take place when important decisions and issues are discussed. COVID vaccines, minorities, environment, immigration and companies have all had their share of disinformation attacks.

Creators of disinformation want to make people suspicious of their leaders, authorities and science, even make them hate and distrust them. They want to interfere with the democratic process, formation of opinions and create overall confusion, destabilise societies and polarise them further. Very often it is difficult to pinpoint exactly who is behind disinformation.

Dancing in the Dark

There are several ways of conducting disinformation campaigns. Social media is a popular channel with several fake accounts and troll factories mingling with the general public and messing up with the popular opinion, creating havoc and confusion.

Sometimes the targets of disinformation campaigns are individuals (e.g., journalist Jessikka Aro) and companies (e.g., Starbucks, Coca Cola). Sometimes conspiracy theorists, with the likes of QAnon, get involved and associate e-commerce sites, logos and colours of brands with disinformation. Even brands have been blamed for spreading disinformation, e.g., soft drink brands for funding research that deny its products cause obesity.

Vague, sudden and scary attacks can create an unpleasant atmosphere in companies and the frontline staff needs clear advice how to deal with it. Companies can get a massive flood of hateful social media posts and they need to stay alert and react quickly, but in a collected and calm manner, based on their strategy and values, to rectify the situation.

Defence against disrupting lies

When a company becomes a target of disinformation, crisis communication and reputation management come into play. Experts on information influence say that it is important to build awareness, anticipate and stay alert. It is vital to make sure that technology is up-to-date, safe and sound.

Keeping the lines of communication transparent is essential. In the case of a disinformation event, businesses as well as individuals should openly tell what has happened and what they are doing to combat the disinformation. Communicating with customers and stakeholders is the key to tackling false information. Usually it is not worth starting to fight with the spreader of the disinformation. When the storm has settled, it is also important to gather valuable insights of what happened and learn from it.

Many social media platforms have defined terms and conditions which require users to provide their real identity in their profiles. However, the challenge people who use social media face every day is, that they are truly not able to see who is behind most of the pages they have ”liked”.

Brands have also boycotted social media platforms to combat the spread of disinformation. Recently, individual and volunteer-based troll hunting groups have emerged as a resource for fighting disinformation. They work hard to track down people and accounts that deliberately spread false information. As a result, lists of fake news websites circulate the internet and help people check if the news source or advertisement in social media feeds has links to shady business.

There have been calls of hybrid operations and cyber security becoming compulsory topics for all students. Also marketing studies will feature them more prominently, as an ability to detect and combat disinformation is a necessity for both brands and people to succeed in the world of business.

Nobody wants to be the useful idiot who promotes the harmful goals of disinformation creators. Fortunately, Finland’s population is the most literate in the world and we are trained for critical thinking and have the means for life-long learning.

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