LAW AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Misinformation poses threat to business, political process

Much has been discussed about the effects of misinformation and “fake news” on the political process, but the consequences of misleading information on corporations has been examined far less.

Former intelligence officer Matthew F. Ferraro recommended strategies to combat online attacks that use misinformation.

Former intelligence officer Matthew F. Ferraro recommended strategies to combat online attacks that use misinformation.

American Bar Association photo

But at a Dec. 4 event sponsored by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security titled “The Threat Disinformation and Deepfakes Pose to the Private Sector,” the topic was on full display. Matthew F. Ferraro, a former intelligence officer and senior associate at WilmerHale, discussed examples of disinformation and deepfakes harming businesses too.

Ferraro pointed out that misinformation was prevalent in the Russian’s 2016 intrusion into the American election and warned that the problem is getting worse. He said the “speed, scale and quality” of fake information is improving and the “credulity of the people” receiving the information is also growing. Ferraro highlighted another bonus for these purveyors of false information; a “liar’s dividend,” where people can deny that damaging true information is real by dismissing it as fake news.

The possible implications for the private sector loom large. Ferraro quoted a survey that said 88% of investors believed that deepfakes pose a risk to businesses. A fake video of a CEO doing something inappropriate on the eve of an IPO could be catastrophic. He cited a campaign against Starbucks that posted bogus tweets advertising “Dreamer Day,” when the coffee chain would supposedly give out free drinks to undocumented immigrants. Starbucks had to move quickly to counter seemingly legitimate social media advertisements.

Ferraro named three distinct threat actors. The first involve “trolls,” people who launch misinformation to harm specific corporations out of spite or dogma, not profit. The Starbucks attack falls under this category. Second are the “profiteers,” or groups that seek financial gain by using misinformation that damages a company.

A third group is the “foreign flags.” These state-backed groups target private U.S. companies with fake news to damage its brand and drive business to a company in their own country instead. Ferraro said that as many as 70 countries have organizations that deal in disinformation.

Companies need to be ready for such attacks. Ferraro recommends strategies that include:

  • Engaging in social listening to identify what is being said about you and conducting an assessment of your vulnerabilities.
  • Preparing for these events by assigning roles and responsibilities to senior managers and conducting simulations.
  • Engaging on social media platforms to communicate so customers and business partners know whom to trust in the face of false information.

If all else fails, Ferraro recommends legal action. While First Amendment rights protect opinion, corporations have legal recourse, particularly when third parties benefit from spreading lies. 

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