By: Jonathon Morgan
The Internet is an amazing place with immense potential even beyond what we’ve already seen. Today, many brands are on the forefront of this creativity, leveraging the Internet in innovative ways to create community through engaging experiences and meaningful connections.
However, the same social networks that can bring people together online can and are being manipulated. Agenda-driven groups know how to leverage the mechanics of the internet to amplify their voices and spread their agendas. Many of these groups or factions are willing to resort to dishonest and disingenuous tactics to accomplish this. This ongoing phenomenon has led to an overall confusion over what or who to actually believe online. According to a 2020 study by Harris Poll and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, more than eight in ten people surveyed (82 percent) said they were concerned about what is real or fake on the internet, and yet 42 percent said they get news on social media each week.
Factions and the narratives they spread or influence online can be problematic for brands that have worked hard to build a platform to connect with consumers online and those that have invested in developing and telling a compelling brand story.
The Blindspot in Your Communications Strategy
No doubt your team has spent countless hours honing a communications strategy that reflects your expertise and values. But the thing about blindspots is that, by definition, we never know if we have them. Traditional social monitoring and social listening tools that tune into trending keywords on mainstream platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are no longer enough to protect your brand’s image from viral stories that spread through fringe networks and niche groups.
Just one instance of trending misinformation or disinformation about your brand is enough to dismantle the trust you’ve worked so diligently to earn. The solution is to find a social intelligence tool that can identify these internet factions and take precautionary action before they spread false narratives and impact your brand's reputation and bottom line. While it’s possible to get in front of the spread of viral narratives with social intelligence, the last several years have seen many brands, such as Delta and Pepsi, get blindsided by online chatter that has influenced their reputation (and bottom line) in record time.
How Online Factions and Narratives Can Damage Your Brand
Remember when Wayfair was targeted by QAnon conspiracy theorists in 2020? What started as an innocent Tweet on a mainstream platform soon generated a lot of activity on a messaging board. It wasn’t long before this false narrative became a global trend.
Unfounded claims that the furniture company was using its website as a venue for child trafficking spread with lightning speed across the Internet, leading to many major media outlets publishing headlines that directly linked Wayfair with these allegations. Of course this was a false story, but it was made all the more powerful by the fact that this faction could use the reputation and recognizability of a real brand to advance their conspiracy theory.
Consider also online groups that have been vocal about opposing the passage of laws that will suppress voting rights in certain U.S. states. Many of these groups have pivoted to a boycotting strategy, encouraging consumers to stop purchasing products from brands like Coca-Cola, Delta, Patagonia and others, pressuring them to come out against the laws. These groups are aware that hijacking an existing brand’s platform is an extremely effective way to amplify their message.
Factions may also target your brand spokespeople and is an approach that is becoming more common. A 2021 Corporate Board Member poll revealed that now 57 percent of directors surveyed are more concerned about reputational risk today than they had been in prior years. By singling out company executives, employees, and other affiliated individuals through brigading and trolling tactics, these groups hope to solicit a reaction and garner further publicity for their own agenda. Internet factions have perfected techniques for making sure that a message or an image goes viral. It wasn’t that long ago that the “WallStreetBets” subreddit boosted GameStop’s shares in defiance of hedge funds and investing norms. This coordinated short squeeze, which cost billions of dollars in losses for some short-sellers, was amplified by the creation of memes and other humorous images that were spread rapidly by Internet users.
Using Social Intelligence to Get in Front of Narratives That Impact Your Brand
All of these tactics have revealed one thing: By the time a false narrative is trending about a brand, it’s far too late to thwart the situation. So, what does it take to become one of these forward thinking brands at the cutting edge of crisis prevention?
The answer is simple: If your communications strategy does not include monitoring the grey web, your brand is risking constantly becoming enmeshed in crisis management. Imagine always playing on your heels when you could be on your toes.
AI and machine learning can help brands monitor what is happening on the grey web and, ultimately, get in front of misinformation, boycotts, petitions, and other viral events before they are trending. Only the full picture of a narrative, incident or disinformation campaign can provide communications and policy teams with the context they need to decide whether, and how, to act. Many agenda-driven groups have taken advantage of non-mainstream messaging and communication platforms to coordinate their efforts, so it’s important to tune into fringe and hard-to-see spaces online, where the majority of narratives that reach viral status begin.
Before you take a stance against disinformation on the web, it’s also important to understand who is behind the message. Is it a small group of passionate fans? In this case, you may not need to act. But if you can know with confidence that a story spreading online is authentic, everything won’t feel like a crisis you have to engage with. By helping you see what is coming and mitigating your risk, you can help your brand make more confident strategic and business decisions.
It’s important to make sure the internet remains a fruitful ecosystem where a brand’s messaging can create a positive change in the world. There is no place for individuals, extremist groups, and conspiracy theorists who want to sow discord and increase polarization. To achieve this in 2021 and beyond, it is now non-negotiable for brands to proactively monitor fringe factions and channels that thrive on the grey web.
Jonathon Morgan is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Yonder. Prior to Yonder, he published research about extremist groups manipulating social media with the Brookings Institution, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, presented at NATO’s Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism, the United States Institute for Peace, and the African Union. Jonathon also served as an adviser to the US State Department, developing strategies for digital counter-terrorism. He regularly provides commentary about online disinformation for publications such as New York Times, NBC, NPR, and Wired.