Social Media is the New Battleground for Corporate Warfare
A strong and active social media presence has long been a must-have for companies trying to grow their brand, reach out to customers or potential customers, and essentially exist in the 21st century. The logic of that is inescapable – if you know that almost your entire customer-base is likely to exist within a handful of siloed environments, you have to have a presence in those environments, in the same way as if you want to go fishing, you can argue about the most successful bait all day long, but ultimately, you have to go near the water, rather than trying your luck in a field.
But now, a new trend is emerging, according to Lyric Jain, CEO of Logically, a company that uses AI to trawl social media for disinformation, misinformation, and lies. The trend sees companies engage in a kind of hot social media warfare, using bot farms to spread falsehoods, from the plausible to the absurd, about both their actual commercial rivals and the assumed giants in their industry, so as to force some wiggle room for their own companies to advance.
In any other age, the notion that something like social media could have enough of an effect that companies would be willing to plow cash into such (on the face of it) satirically ridiculous campaigns would be entirely laughable.
But in the world post-2016, no-one, either individually, as a corporate entity, or as a nation, can afford to brush social media aside.
The Direct Impact of Social Media
- It is now accepted fact that campaigning on Facebook helped the Vote Leave campaign overturn more than 40 years of UK history, and swing the Brexit vote that pulled the nation out of the European Union. The message that the UK needed to ‘take back control’ was largely fuelled by previously preposterous stories of EU oppression of British interests, and the – as it turned out, wholly false – notion that by leaving the EU, the UK could plough £350 million per week into its socialized medicine program, the NHS.
- It is also accepted fact that Donald Trump would not have become President of the United States without the influence of social media. Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital media director in 2016, told Wired: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
- Facebook and Twitter were both later used to organize and galvanize the insurrection and the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6th, 2021. In particular, Mr Trump’s much-tweeted narrative about a ‘stolen election’ – a narrative he continues to promote even as his Mar-A-Lago property is raided by the FBI, and he pleads the Fifth Amendment in hearings on that day’s events – was held to fuel the sense of righteous injustice that motivated many to ‘take back democracy’ and ‘stop the steal.’ That event is what it took for Facebook and Twitter to finally begin proceedings to ban him from using their platforms.
The Indirect Impact of Social Media
The social media effect is more insidious than these three major geopolitical eruptions.
- Less overt social media groups and platforms are the basis of the Manosphere, a loose collective of men’s rights activists, incels, aggressive pick-up artists, and as Laura Bates (founder of the Everyday Sexism project) describes them, “Men who hate women.”
- Even horrifying free speech is free speech – except potentially when it gets people killed. Elliot Rodger, the first of the “incel superheroes” posted a lengthy YouTube video before going on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California in 2014 that left six people dead before he turned his gun on himself.
- In 2018, in Toronto, Canada, Alek Minassian would go on a vehicle-ramming rampage, killing 11 and injuring 15, posting to Facebook about his reverence of Rodger, and his dedication to the incel cause.
- Even the most absurd rumors and conspiracy theories, like the famous ‘PizzaGate’ notion that prominent Democrats were involved in a worldwide child-sex and human trafficking ring, gained traction after being introduced to social media – to the point where 29 year-old Edgar Maddison Welch went to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washinton and fired a military-style rifle, in the unshaken belief that he was helping to free imprisoned, underage sex slaves. He wasn’t. They weren’t there. They weren’t anywhere, and he was sentenced to four years in prison.
And that’s before we even contemplate the Russian bot-farms that have become almost a cliché on social media, pumping out trollish support for Russian government and anti-Western propaganda by way of fuelling dissent and distrust of the observable truth about everything from Brexit, to Trump, to the invasion of Ukraine.
The point is probably sufficiently made – no-one can afford to treat social media too lightly these days. It can be a source of cyber-attacks (LinkedIn is the most popular way bad actors get the details to launch phishing scams), it can get people ‘cancelled’ if their audience vastly disapproves of things they’ve said and done (as in the case of JK Rowling), it can lead to doxing (the exposure of real life details of a person’s life, including their address), and it is largely unregulated in terms of fact-checking. The fact-checking that there is, in an ultimate irony, is largely in place because of the misuse made of social media by Donald Trump during his time in office.
Given all that, it’s actually quite surprising to learn that corporate warfare by social media is only just beginning to become a phenomenon that demands a response from leading businesses.
The practice is increasing though, and has major Fortune 500 companies in its sights. Less well established or less successful companies are paying or creating their own bot-farms to spread malicious rumors and lies about the leading companies. Using tactics from the Russian bot-farm playbook, they set up numerous accounts, and start rumors (or peddle outright lies) about the practices of the successful companies. Then, using their multiple accounts, they will amplify the rumor, until it becomes a Thing People Read On Social Media.
The point about Things People Read On Social Media is that once they’re out there, they gain momentum rapidly, moving from a bot-farm to real people who are ready to believe anything negative about a particular company. Importantly, social media is not the rugged, discursive free-for-all people like to believe it is – it’s an almost-infinite collection of siloed echo chambers, meaning rumors grow, thrive, and intensify much faster than they would in the un-siloed real world. Rumors grow, and feed into anti-corporate groups and communities, and before anyone knows where they are, if people are not exactly taking an AR-15 into Taco Bell, they are at least fervently believing the company uses roadkill as its main ingredient and staying away.
NB – this is an entirely hypothetical rumor, and, like most social media conspiracies, bears no resemblance to reality. No animals were roadkilled in the making of this example.
What Remedy Exists?
So, if smaller companies are now engaging in this kind of unethical social media warfare, what can companies doe about it, other than watch their reputations and their profits nosedive due to hostile actions?
Firstly, you’re going to need an expert company to assess the scale of the problem you have. At the moment, the majority of these attacks are committed by foreign line-by-line competitors, especially from China, to destabilize trust in the domestic market and stimulate purchase of the competitor products. Some smaller domestic firms have started getting in on the act though, and Mr Jain said he would not be surprised to find some major companies beginning to use similar tactics. The more the practice gets accepted into the day-to-day business background, the more it will happen, because “Everybody does it” – and there goes the profitable neighborhood.
Companies like Logically use AI to fast-scan social media for mention of your company, and flag lies, misinformation, and disinformation. The results are then examined by human fact-checkers, and where necessary, reported to the social media platform.
Stamping Out Fires
In many cases, the platforms will remove the false posts. On the one hand, this is the best result currently achievable, and goes some way towards smothering the rumor-fire. In fact, actively stamping out the rumor or the falsehood whenever it’s detected, but getting the social media platforms to do it, is as effective a remedy as we can currently hope for – which will keep companies like Logically, and their fact-checkers, in business for the foreseeable future, providing what some would argue is a service that should be offered cost-free by the social media platforms.
The fact that rumors and conspiracy theories only get stronger in the minds of some people the more is done to remove them, because obviously the rumor was ‘on to something’ and so ‘needed to be quashed’ is a much more complex problem, and would require massive governmental re-funding of the education system to fix.