If you were to write a history of the internet from a security perspective, the 2000s were dominated by terrorist propaganda. Al-Qaida pioneered forums, encryption techniques and YouTube to persuade global audiences. The 2010s could arguably be labelled as the decade of disinformation, where nation-states and others mastered the art of mass manipulation, exploiting political divisions through digital means. Whilst it is too early to say for sure what the 2020s has in store, Information Laundering is emerging as a new technique to shift reputations and public perceptions. What makes IL such a threat is that it is cheap, efficient and easy to do.
Making the Inauthentic, Authentic
A recent report published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence defines IL as a process where “false or deceitful information is legitimised through a network of intermediaries that gradually apply a set of techniques in order to distort it and obscure the original source”. Hostile actors use IL to seed false information and then launder it through a network of intermediaries, with the end result being that the information is picked up by a legitimate media outlet and therefore given a degree of authenticity. As money is laundered, the same can be said for information.
IL involves deploying sophisticated techniques such as ‘smurfing’ – increasing the visibility of a laundered piece ; and ‘Potemkin Villages’ – coordinated activity between several actors that constantly endorse and reinforce each other. While nation-states and political groups are adept at information operations, their success has provided a playbook for individual actors to apply these techniques against public companies and individuals.
IL in the corporate arena
There are many recent examples of hostile actors successfully shifting public opinion by increasing the visibility of a laundered piece, and legitimising it through intermediaries.
On October 30, 2020, as the US election reached fever pitch, the co-founder of US retailer Home Depot, Bernie Marcus, echoed his support for Donald Trump’s campaign. What followed is a remarkable and highly insightful example of successful IL techniques.
Firstly, detractors strategically exploited a viral tweet from writer and comedian , asking to boycott the company. The tweet was laundered, to the point that it appeared as though The Home Depot – as one entity – endorsed Donald Trump (rather than just Mr Marcus, the individual). The tweet was also smurfed (artificial accounts were used to amplify the tweet) as online users tried to harm Home Depot’s reputation portraying it as an ideologically-driven business, aligned with “the wrong political values”.
Soon, the hashtag #boycotthomedepot was joined by #buyatlowes (Lowe’s is Home Depot’s main competitor). Both hashtags were artificially amplified by bots and other inauthentic accounts, enraging many Twitter users and harming Bernie Marcus and Home Depot’s brand, while portraying a positive image of their competitors. Many of these amplifying accounts had the basic qualities of inauthentic accounts: no profile information, created very recently, and promoting anti-Trump narratives. Some accounts were later suspended by Twitter.
At the end of the laundering process, the general public were left with the impression that everyone affiliated with The Home Depot supported Trump and therefore ought to be boycotted. This story appeared so legitimate that it was shared by many Democrats and wider opponents of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the original information – that Bernie Marcus, who retired from Home Depot two decades ago, endorsed Trump’s re-election – was obscured.
Once the laundered information becomes part of the news cycle, the effects of the laundering process become irreversible.
Conclusion: online investigations are vital to prevent and mitigate these threats
The Home Depot is not an isolated case: IL and other manipulation techniques are here to stay and will be used to hurt competitors, manipulate customers, and shift perceptions. End-to-end online manipulation systems and other disinformation-for-hire services, which can influence the public on a massive scale, are widely available and easy to purchase. An obscure post or tweet can suddenly go from being an innocuous particle on the internet to underpinning an enormously brand-damaging campaign.
What can corporations do to prepare for IL campaigns?
Firstly, it is vital to conduct an online assessment to evaluate any prior or existing IL operations against your brand.
The second remedy is structural: corporate intelligence/risk teams often sit in different rooms, buildings, cities or even countries from their counterparts in PR/comms. A close-knit team of intelligence, risk and communications professionals is vital to survive an advanced IL operation.