Russian Propaganda and The New Normal of The Media — How Will The Market Respond?

On Friday 1/6/17 three major U.S. government agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA) released a joint assessment finding the Russian government under Vladimir Putin during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign cycle is conducting a multi-faceted influence campaign to shape the election’s outcome. The Russian influence campaign is found to be the most aggressive to date and is thought to represent a “new normal” as to Russian efforts to shape the outcome of coming elections in 2017 in liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere. While the short-term goal was to defeat or in the alternate undermine a Clinton administration, the Russian influence campaign serves the long-term policy objective “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.” The influence campaign followed an established messaging strategy blending covert intelligence operations (e.g. cyber activity) with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users.

Russian Influence Campaigns Exploit News Organizations’ Failure To Confirm Sources & Facts

According to the Rand Corporation, “contemporary Russian propaganda is continuous and very responsive to events. Due to their lack of commitment to objective reality, Russian propagandists do not need to wait to check facts or verify claims; they just disseminate an interpretation of emergent events that appears to best favor their themes and objectives. This allows them to be remarkably responsive and nimble, often broadcasting the first “news” of events (and, with similar frequency, the first news of nonevents, or things that have not actually happened). They will also repeat and recycle disinformation.” In a U.S. news environment where the mantra of “we report, you decide” has become operational, the mass audience is consequently highly vulnerable to manipulation. With approximately 40% of Americans getting their news online, the “we report, you decide” approach to truth undermines a feedback loop necessary for democratic governance. If news organizations do not provide confirmation of sources and facts, then mayhem results thereby compromising representative democracy.

Market Opportunity Exists To Establish Content Reliability Systems

Given the systemic weaknesses the influence campaign exploits, the necessary response needs to be strategic and scalable. In terms of U.S. government initiatives, Section 1287 of the National Defense Authorization Act signed in December 2016 supports the creation and operation of the Global Engagement Center (GEC) which expands the U.S. government’s repertoire and mandate to “identify current and emerging trends in foreign propaganda and disinformation in order to coordinate and shape the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.” The GEC will reach back in time and across virtual space to ensure data-streams are not contaminated by state-sponsored misinformation. Relative to private sector initiatives, technology lends itself to pattern recognition, an element essential to determining content reliability. Recently, Silicon Valley publisher Tim O’Reilly outlined a basic verification network (see: https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/how-i-detect-fake-news) which can be automated to enable sorting of news stories based upon their metadata. While not necessarily perfect in all respects, a content reliability system capable of distinguishing quickly between confirmed and unconfirmed news sources can serve to limit the negative impact of influence campaigns. In this way, for users wishing to have a certain confidence level in terms of information veracity, a content reliability system deployed by multiple news sources can serve as a warranty of performance much as “Intel inside” indicates for PC hardware operating performance.

Consumer Pushback Can Impact Advertising Revenues For “Fake News” Online Disseminators, Thereby Undercutting Influence Channels

With advertising revenue a critical component to supporting online news dissemination, there is an opportunity for advertisers to exercise greater control over next to what content their ads appear. However, with the increased reliance on automated “programmatic” digital ad placement which is estimated to capture over $22bn in ad spending, steps need to be taken to ensure advertiser brands are not compromised by placement next to “fake news”. Systems have been developed to prevent ad placement on pornographic websites, so this is not a particularly difficult initiative to implement. Moreover, consumer efforts such as Sleeping Giants (see: @slpng_giants) have recently mobilized following the November 2016 U.S. election to engage with advertisers to ensure their brands do not support “fake news” online dissemination. It is clearly early days, but should consumers engage with advertisers en masse it would be reasonable to expect brands to exert greater control over their ad spend. Meanwhile, Sleeping Giants is in particular targeting advertisers running ads on Breitbart.com (see: http://nyti.ms/2i4MAmN). Separately, consumer pressure aside, we expect advertisers for brand integrity considerations will pull back from websites actively engaged in “fake news” dissemination (see: http://gvaresearch.com/bloomberg-radio-interview-gvas-garrity-on-potential-advertiser-push-back-on-fake-news/).

David Garrity — GVA Research
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