Information manipulation: PR's number one enemy?

On 23 February, 2024
3 min
spread of fake press release


Information and opinion manipulation, denigration campaigns, the spread of fake news, malicious hoaxes and outright falsification. In recent years, activism and "Dark PR" have come to threaten brands. A malicious use of public relations, Dark PR aims to tarnish or even destroy an organization's image. Those involved in smear campaigns aim to capitalize on the bad press the company will suffer. In order to manipulate share prices, gain market share, win a tender or, trivially, benefit from a better reputation. Whether good-natured, malicious or purely criminal, there are many different types:


The denigration campaign

While campaigns to criticize each other's brands, such as McDonald's vs. Burger King or Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, are more fun than malicious. Yet some smear campaigns can take a far more malicious and threatening turn. Boeing was accused in 2018 of using its PR firm Law Media Group to write scorching editorials about space rival Tesla. Specifically targeting the incompetence of its leader Elon Musk, the aim was to discredit him with NASA. Whether it's Alibaba versus Tencent or Facebook versus Google, there's no shortage of proven or opaque denigration practices and campaigns.


Hoaxes and identity theft

Any company can fall victim to hackers. They are likely to share and aim to manipulate false information via its own communication channels. Or at least, likely to recreate communication channels almost identical to those of the targeted company in order to dupe the latter's stakeholders, journalists included. In January 2019, a few days before the publication of Black Rock CEO Larry Finck's annual letter, a fake e-mail and mini-site were published. It announced a change in strategy for the leading asset manager. This was a hoax orchestrated by the Yes Men, particularly creative anti-liberal activists. It took the company a few hours to realize this and publicly deny the hoax.

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Such usurpations can be very costly for listed companies, as demonstrated by Vinci's false press release in 2016. This action caused the group's market capitalization to plummet by 7 billion euros. The media can also bear the brunt of information manipulation. The Bloomberg agency was condemned for having relayed false information in this same case by the Autorité des Marchés Financiers.


Content falsification

Some agencies or Dark PR professionals go so far as to make the creation of false content their core business. Numerous "agencies" have been set up to orchestrate disinformation campaigns. They combine fake press releases, fake Facebook pages, fake Twitter accounts, fake websites and other troll farms. However, the phenomenon of information manipulation is not new. The English firm Boll Pottinger has repeatedly been accused of creating false information to support clients. Much to the chagrin of the vast majority of PR agencies who do their job honourably. It was finally caught up in a major scandal in South Africa, where the firm was accused of stirring up racial tensions to further its clients' interests.

Today, technological advances combine information manipulation and disinformation campaigns. They multiply falsification tools, often very convincing, to tarnish a company's image. These tools have become commonplace and accessible to neophytes. This is thanks to the proliferation of dedicated applications such as Fake App or Deepfake app. It's becoming difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, even when it comes to video. Algorithms and open-source tools such as Tensor Flow can also be used to create deep fakes. Conversely, new technological tools are emerging to enable companies to protect themselves against misinformation. These include Newsguard, which "rates" the reliability of information, and Wiztrust, a French platform that enables companies to certify their information on the blockchain.

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