FUD in a Fake News Era

I’m always interested in topics related to my profession, PR, and the industry we serve, technology. So I was eager to see what NY Times had to say in Jack Nicas’s recent piece: How Facebook’s P.R. Firm Brought Political Trickery to Tech.

Longtime readers know that I like to call out misconceptions about PR, hence the name of my blog. I dug in with my revenge hackles up, ready to pounce on inaccuracies. Instead I found a solid piece of reporting (apart from a few minor quibbles). It made me think of broader questions about PR ethics, which I’ve explored before here, and the state of communications today.

In his story, Nicas wrote: “Definers specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations — an approach long employed in Washington… but less common in tech.”

Hardball PR is by no means new in tech. Indeed, my post Above the FUD, covered this very topic back in 2011 (ironically, it mentioned another PR agency that spread negative stories for Facebook back then).

What seems new is that there is a PR firm specializing in dark PR, that was born and bred in DC. Of course, Facebook makes this topic relevant as it fits in with NY Times story about their recent missteps.

But the reason I found the piece (and an earlier one Nicas wrote with Matthew Rosenberg) to be eye opening has nothing to do with Facebook per se, or opposition research, or political PR coming to tech. The tactics Definers used sound like a page from the playbooks of Russian hackers and others who weaponize modern communications systems to achieve their goals.

Here are some excerpts from the first Times story mentioned above:

  • Definers’s strategy played to a target’s pressure points
  • To promote clients and attack enemies, Definers regularly used NTK Network, a news aggregator with a conservative slant and 122,000 followers on Facebook…
  • “Through NTK we can directly re-publish favorable news from other outlets, and work with like-minded individuals to help create an echo chamber effect” [from a Defners proposal reviewed by The Times].
  • Employees distributed anti-Apple research to reporters and would not say who was paying for it.
  • While working for Qualcomm, Definers pushed the idea that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, was a viable presidential candidate in 2020… Presumably to chill the cordial relations with the Trump administration.
  • Definers’s focus on Mr. Cook extended to a campaign it ran to promote the Apple chief as a 2020 presidential candidate. A slick website titled “Draft Tim Cook 2020” had digital links to Definers employees
  • [Definers] wrote an article that accused Mr. Cook of lying to President Trump about building Apple factories in the United States…. right-wing provocateur Charles C. Johnson published it on his website GotNews without a byline or other disclosures…
  • Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and the liberal financier George Soros, drawing accusations that it was relying on anti-Semitic tropes.

They combined traditional FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) tactics with tools of modern information warfare, using the web and social media, and pushed political and emotional hot buttons to generate media interest and spread their messages.

The above may seem like an extreme case, but it is a reminder of where we are now, in a world in which many are quick to scream “Fake News” and online channels can be so easily subverted.

It is all too tempting for any communications professional to consider how to coopt these systems; and poses all kinds of dilemmas about where to draw the line.

Some may think “PR ethics” is an oxymoron. Like any profession, we have our good and bad apples. The industry has set some guidelines, as explained in this Wikipedia article, which includes PRSA’s take. As I wrote back in 2011, the lines can be fuzzy, and each one of us (as well as our employer) needs to decide what’s fair game.

Perhaps it is time to update the PR ethics rulebook, with the goal of taking a fresh look at how today’s communications systems can be used and abused.