Social media platforms are vulnerable—their systems can be cheated and their audiences can be manipulated. Some companies, like Twitter, are working to tighten their policies and deliver on their company promises. But in the meantime, companies are faced with a choice: do they exploit the vulnerabilities or not? If there is an army of professionals out there willing to warp the world to make a company’s false narrative an accepted truth, as Buzzfeed News recently reported, should they hire them? And more importantly, if more and more companies are willing to pay for firms that manipulate public opinion through subterfuge and outright lies, how many PR firms will start to offer those services?
In the course of Buzzfeed’s reporting, they stumbled upon Peng Kuan Chin, a communications professional in Asia, who used software that creates fake articles to fit specific agendas, publish them to seemingly legitimate websites, and then deploy a legion of social media bots to distribute the content. The result? Whatever the client wanted to be true suddenly appeared to be. They suddenly have nearly limitless capabilities to damage and disrupt the normal flow of information.
Anyone who works in communications, an industry that already struggles with consumer trust, should be terrified by this trend. An enormous chasm separates spin (finding a favorable narrative in an otherwise unfavorable set of facts) and outright lies. As these “Dark PR” operatives become more pervasive, they affect the reputation of the entire industry. People like Peng are showing up to the party late, loud and disruptive, and they’re going to get the cops called on everyone else having a good time.
Those looking to misinform the public to get what they want now have the means to do so. When a corporate communications team is looking for an agency, most people don’t think about the communications industry as a whole. They are responsible for protecting their company’s reputation and advancing their strategic goals, so what tools they use can easily become a secondary consideration.
So why should a company avoid professionals like Peng?
Aside from operating in an obvious moral grey area, misleading people to achieve your goals never pays off in the long run. Tobacco, an industry famed for perpetrating one of the largest misinformation campaigns in American history, is the ultimate proof. Over the course of nearly one hundred years, they hid medical evidence detrimental to their product, pushed false advertising campaigns, and allegedly misled Congress. Their short-term thinking cost them the public’s trust—nearly 70% of Americans today view tobacco companies unfavorably and view them as untrustworthy—and hundreds of billions in legal settlements. Today, only 15% of Americans have smoked in the last week—a third of the customer base the tobacco industry had in the 1950s. These companies, through conscious, continuous deception over the course of decades, irreparably damaged their reputation with the American public.
It’s not that all of these “Dark PR” strategies are illegal—though some operations have been restricted by law enforcement—it’s that the law hasn’t been written yet.
The government is lagging behind the private sector, as it often does when it comes to questions of technology. Legislators don’t know how to regulate fake accounts or misinformation on social media yet. But when they catch up, there is no guarantee these practices will remain legal or hidden from the public. If a company did spend millions of dollars spreading lies to advance their goals and it was ever brought to light in a deposition, congressional hearing, or news story, the reputational damage could dramatically outweigh anything a company accomplished with those questionable tactics.
Broader questions about trust in the media and digital channels are starting to bubble to the surface in the public conscience. Over the last few years, terms like “fake news” have become common rhetoric for politicians and the general public. Companies like Facebook have had their struggles with misinformation thrust into the national spotlight by congressional hearings, third party research, and reporting. As a result, distrust is heightened and companies’ reputations suffer. The backlash against the funders and agents of mass disinformation campaigns, if and when they are exposed, will be catastrophic.
For every tool, there is a user who misuses or abuses it. It’s what the majority chooses to do that decides how they will be perceived. PR firms and in-house communications professionals alike should be cautious; short-term thinking, without regard for brand reputation or the longevity of a company or industry, never paid off for anyone in the long run. And few things are more short-sighted than choosing to manipulate the public for the sake of profit.
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Peng Kuan Chin[/caption]