“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots.”
Mark Twain never actually uttered this famed witticism often attributed to him—which makes it in and of itself a form of misinformation. However, the concept could not be more apt to the current state of affairs when it comes to the lightning-fast spread of misleading content online.
In the last year alone, we have seen how disinformation—the deliberate use of untruths or half-truths to confuse, incite, or inflame —can travel under the radar and lead to economic harm, physical damage, and even loss of life as it undermines election integrity, as well as public health and safety.
It isn’t just governments that have to worry about the rapid spread of false narratives; businesses are also starting to feel its effects.
Disinformation poses multifaceted threats to business
Disinformation—from purposefully misleading rumors and coordinated campaigns targeting individual companies or industries, to foreign interference in domestic markets—can threaten a company’s reputation and profitability, and even influence financial markets.
Consider the large-scale misinformation campaigns surrounding COVID-19 vaccines that pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna have been facing, or the telecoms companies that have seen attacks on cell phone towers and a slowdown of digital infrastructure rollout because of 5G conspiracy theories.
Disinformation can even have a direct impact on a company’s share price or bottom line: In 2019 the targeting of a U.K. financial institution, Metro Bank, by false social media activity prompted public concern about its financial health and caused long lines of customers intent on pulling money from savings accounts.
Moreover, the very presence of disinformation can corrode the trust required to build and maintain a brand’s relationship with its consumers. Market leaders such as P&G and Unilever have recognized this, making public commitments to stop their advertisements from appearing alongside harmful and misleading content, and pledging not to fund platforms and websites giving “airtime” to misleading news or false narratives.
So how can companies tackle this phenomenon? While there may be short-term steps companies can take to protect themselves against harmful disinformation, broader collaboration between businesses, policymakers, and other stakeholders is key for a more wide-reaching and proactive approach to tackling global corporate disinformation at scale.
1. Identify and disarm disinformation before it scales
Recent news events have shown just how quickly disinformation can spread and the need to address it early. Effective monitoring systems combining artificial and human intelligence can identify harmful disinformation before it goes viral, enabling organizations to deploy effective countermeasures such as crafting counter-narratives or stemming the flow of advertising dollars to websites that publish disinformation.
2. Band together for centralized intelligence sharing
We are simply too fragmented in our current approach to effectively compete with increasingly sophisticated disinformation networks. To tackle the issue at scale, businesses, stakeholders, and government bodies should securely and transparently share patterns and signals of coordinated disinformation and harmful misinformation drawn from their analysis. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s recent announcement of the creation of a new Foreign Malign Influence Center is a welcome step forward, but its membership could be expanded beyond just government intelligence agencies to include external analysts too, thereby increasing coverage even further. Of course, this would need to be done in a way that respects freedom of speech and upholds privacy safeguards.
3. Bring together expert minds
Bringing together experts who can access data and intelligence pooled across platforms, analyze it for recurring patterns and signals, and quickly bring potentially damaging activity to the attention of those targeted will enable companies to intervene quickly and effectively. NGOs, academics, nonprofits, specialist researchers and analysts, as well as private sector experts, all have diverse and valuable perspectives and allowing them to work with data drawn across platforms and jurisdictions will help us to continue to develop effective tools to keep abreast of the threats.
4. Establish a robust auditing process to increase transparency
Establishing a robust auditing process will ensure not only the effectiveness but also the objectivity and transparency of online platforms’ policies and anti-disinformation efforts. Twitter’s recommendation of a shared, open protocol to increase transparency around how content is moderated is an idea worthy of consideration from the other major platforms.
These steps will be challenging for companies to manage effectively and success will take time. The good news is that progress is being made. Calls for meaningful reform are louder and more urgent than they’ve ever been, and our collective ability to respond—through technological solutions and our understanding of the problem—is growing stronger every day. The critical thing is that we all begin working together to tackle disinformation at scale.
Lyric Jain is the founder and CEO of Logically.