‘Disinformation for Hire’ is Becoming a Booming Industry

Sunday the BBC reported YouTube influencers were offered money to spread vaccine misinformation.

But according to the New York Times, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “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. “Disinfo-for-hire actors being employed by government or government-adjacent actors is growing and serious,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, calling it “a boom industry.”

Similar campaigns have been recently found promoting India’s ruling party, Egyptian foreign policy aims and political figures in Bolivia and Venezuela. Mr. Brookie’s organization tracked one operating amid a mayoral race in Serra, a small city in Brazil. An ideologically promiscuous Ukrainian firm boosted several competing political parties. In the Central African Republic, two separate operations flooded social media with dueling pro-French and pro-Russian disinformation. Both powers are vying for influence in the country. A wave of anti-American posts in Iraq, seemingly organic, were tracked to a public relations company that was separately accused of faking anti-government sentiment in Israel.

Most trace to back-alley firms whose legitimate services resemble those of a bottom-rate marketer or email spammer… For-hire disinformation, though only sometimes effective, is growing more sophisticated as practitioners iterate and learn. Experts say it is becoming more common in every part of the world, outpacing operations conducted directly by governments. The result is an accelerating rise in polarizing conspiracies, phony citizen groups and fabricated public sentiment, deteriorating our shared reality beyond even the depths of recent years… Commercial firms conducted for-hire disinformation in at least 48 countries last year — nearly double from the year before, according to an Oxford University study. The researchers identified 65 companies offering such services…

Platforms have stepped up efforts to root out coordinated disinformation. Analysts especially credit Facebook, which publishes detailed reports on campaigns it disrupts. Still, some argue that social media companies also play a role in worsening the threat. Engagement-boosting algorithms and design elements, research finds, often privilege divisive and conspiratorial content.
The article also notes “a generation” of populist political leaders around the world who have risen “in part through social media manipulation.

“Once in office, many institutionalize those methods as tools of governance and foreign relations.”