Understanding the Deep Web

There was a recent hard-fought referendum in Ireland about abortion rights. Both sides were active participants on social media with extensive paid campaigns, especially on Facebook. But 48 percent of the ads were promoted by pages that were administered from abroad. You might like to know who was behind them, right? Corporate communicators concerned about orchestrated campaigns organized in the Deep Webnow have ways to identify the source of disinformation.

One of them, Storyful, is a social media intelligence agency owned by News Corp. that built its business separating fact from fiction on social media for newsrooms around the world like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Now it also serves corporations and PR firms that are attempting to make sense of misinformation and manage its impact. It is one of the few organizations with elevated access to the APIs of important platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook. But more importantly, it has developed tools allowing its journalists and analysts to search and scrutinize the fringe networks of the Deep Web, which is any website that cannot be accessed through the usual search engines of Google or Bing, with content that has not been indexed.

The Dark Web, a portion of the Deep Web, has graduated from its initial function of illicit and illegal activities, such as murder for hire, sale of deadly poisons, or fake passports. Now it is the hotbed of false political and corporate news which then spreads to fringe networks, social platforms and then to mainstream media. In the past week alone, Storyful has discovered over 1,700 threads in Reddit referencing posts on 4Chan, 8Chan, EndChan, Voat and Gab.

I met last night with Sharb Farjami, who runs Storyful. Here are a few important observations for communicators:

  1. Fake News Does Not Always Start on Major Platforms — There are important feeders in the Deep Web, including fringe networks such as Gab, 4Chan and 8Chan. There are 480,000 alt-right provocateurs on the Gab site, according to Wired. 
  2. There Is More From Right Wing Than Left Wing — But neither side is above using disinformation.
  3. The Technique Most Often Used Is Words — While fake video is becoming cheaper to create, often a fake narrative is all that is needed.
  4. Nike, New Balance and Narrative Jacking — The Colin Kaepernick campaign for Nike has prompted far-right groups to label the company as being oriented to African Americans. Racially charged Nike coupon memes were created on 4Chan within 48 hours of the campaign launch and later surfaced on Facebook. By contrast the New Balance brand is once again being hailed as the brand for Anglos, with pictures on alt-right sites. 
  5. Jumping on the News Agenda — Be it an arrest, a shooting or the protest in Charlottesville, expect a flood of posts sharing disinformation on alternative news sites, an example being the recent news story regarding an arrest in Starbucks, which prompted a coordinated campaign targeting the brand.
  6. Memes Target Brands — In order to pressure brands in the wake of the NFL player protests (kneeling during the National Anthem), there were memes targeting brands such as Budweiser, showing a Marine kneeling in the sand in the Middle East, saying this is the way to take a knee. Most recently, there is a campaign to promote Wrangler as the brand for the patriotic American, after Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh spoke out about guns in America.
  7. Fake News Targets Companies — To pressure Delta Airlines after it decided to revoke the discount status of National Rifle Association members (after the Parkland school shooting), there were fake newspaper articles on customer protests.
  8. Health Risks Invented — There are two trending items in the Deep Web. The rollout of the 5G network has prompted claims that the new system causes cancer. The anti-vaccine movement continues to cause disinformation woes for Big Pharma with a sustained campaign of fake news headlines to keep the story alive.

Brands and corporations are now in the center of the political discussion, whether on business matters such as trade or social issues such as immigration. In the battle for truth, a company must make its voice heard as quickly as it can. It’s a necessity to get out in front of a situation rather than play from behind. Whether it is Storyful or similar platforms, it is vital to identify and combat the flow of disinformation.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

linkedin