Disinformation-for-hire is a booming industry in which private marketing, communications, and public relations firms are paid to sow discord by spreading false information and manipulating content online. Since 2018, more than 65 private companies in 48 different countries have emerged offering these services. Their tactics include using a combination of artificial intelligence and cheap manual labor to create batches of fake social media accounts, spread falsified information, and even set up fake news and fact-checking websites that promote disinformation.
Frequent customers of these disinformation-for-hire firms include governments, politicians, and political parties—all clients interested in shaping public discourse. At least $60 million has been spent on firms offering various types of computational propaganda services since 2009, but researchers warn the actual amount is likely much higher.
Disinformation-for-hire firms contribute to the dwindling public trust in news media, worsening conditions for journalist safety, and deterioration of media financial sustainability. Websites created by these firms pose as news outlets and pull readers away from independent media content. These firms may also orchestrate targeted online attacks that create a dangerous digital environment for journalists, leading many to self-censor. Overwhelming quantities of disinformation flood the digital space and drown out high-quality news content.
The growth of this industry threatens to further erode trust in media, and also forces independent media to compete for audiences with deep-pocketed companies that are paid to spread disinformation. As more of these companies appear, independent media must find a way to stand out and retain readership amidst the mounting disinformation.
Disinformation-for-hire firms use a variety of tactics to achieve their clients’ objectives. One key tactic is narrative laundering. This method involves ensuring state-sponsored news content is picked up by news outlets at national, regional and global levels and spread widely on social media. To accomplish this, companies create websites that imitate independent media to give credibility to propaganda. The goal is for this content to be picked up by other media sites and then be distributed organically across the information space through social media to the public. This strategy was used prominently by the Indian government when it contracted a Canada-based communications firm to create a website presenting itself as an Indian media outlet and fact-checking site. The only content featured on the site, however, targets government opponents and favors the current administration. These articles were amplified on social media by verified government-run accounts, thereby flooding the digital space with disinformation in the guise of journalism.
Another common tactic to influence public discourse is the use of manual labor to coordinate malicious attacks. In Kenya, private companies were contracted to undermine the country’s judiciary. They hired social media influencers and tech-savvy individuals paid on an hourly basis to undermine the credibility of journalists and activists by claiming they were working for the Kenyan government. The firms used WhatsApp to communicate with content creators and instruct them on how to use specific hashtags, engage with certain tweets and synchronize posts. The goal of the operation was to get these attacks to become trending topics on Twitter, at which point the platform itself would help amplify the content. Many of the victims of these targeted attacks, most notably Kenyan journalists and civil society activists, became so overwhelmed by these attacks that they chose either to remove themselves from Twitter completely or self-censor. Twitter is one of the top newsgathering platforms in Kenya, but it is also an increasingly dangerous digital environment for journalists with little options for recourse.
In the Philippines, disinformation-for-hire firms used armies of bots to sow distrust in the media. The use of automation to overwhelm users with mis- and disinformation is not a new tactic in the Philippines, but has proven effective in creating a toxic realm for news outlets reporting the truth. Due to high demand, many public relations firms in the country offer content manipulation services. President Rodrigo Duterte has used disinformation-for-hire services throughout his presidency to generate public support. While representatives of the administration claim the online support for the president is voluntary, these firms flood the information space with fake websites and social media accounts, and work to silence their clients’ enemies through coordinated harassment campaigns. The result is a digital space so entwined with marketing and politics, it leaves little room for high-quality news content.
The Bolivian government has also used these services to manipulate public discourse. In 2019 Bolivian officials contracted a strategic communications firm based in the United States to influence public opinion before the 2020 presidential election. The firm created fake social media accounts and fact-checking websites supporting the interim President Jeanine Áñez and undermining the credibility of the opposition. The communications firm was hired to “support the democratic process” in Bolivia, but instead cluttered the digital space with false information that buried independent news content.
These tactics help private companies sow distrust in information ecosystems for profit, creating a difficult environment for independent media. When journalists are forced to leave or censor themselves on key newsgathering platforms, it becomes even easier for private companies to scoop up their audiences. As a result, the digital space is overrun by manipulative content and targeted messaging. To sustain readership and public trust, independent media must continue producing high-quality reporting while also fending off digital attacks and disseminating content at a rate comparable to that of deep pocketed, tech-savvy companies.
A Battle for the Digital Information Space
The global rise in paid propaganda and mis- and disinformation is disastrous for independent media. Challenges to the traditional business model for news that have existed for decades have been exacerbated by the extensive digital transformation of independent media. More people across the globe are getting their news through social media than ever before.
Disinformation professionals know that social media can be especially effective for sharing their messages en masse. Social media platforms’ algorithms privilege content that generates engagement. Often, the content provoking the greatest engagement is false and misleading. Content creators working for private firms strategically manufacture posts to spur a reaction from users that will ensure the content is amplified on the platform. This means that even without the armies of automated bots and manual labor, disinformation will often appear to audiences more frequently than legitimate, high-quality news content. In the battle for the digital information space, journalists and private companies are fighting on an uneven field.
Content manipulation at the hands of private companies presents a clear threat to independent media by eroding public trust in news content and forcing legitimate news outlets to compete with deep-pocketed commercial entities. Hiring private companies to spread propaganda and undermine the work of independent media creates an increasingly dangerous digital environment for journalists, while innovative tactics used by tech savvy companies make it easier than ever to push disinformation. As it becomes more lucrative for companies to partake in disinformation-for-hire, social media platforms must create better regulatory mechanisms to promote content from legitimate news organizations.
Ann Lewandowski is the development coordinator for the International Women’s Media Foundation. This post was written during her time as the program assistant for the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy.