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.
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:
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.
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.”