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With reputation terrorism growing rapidly online in sophistication and scale, “cyber warrior” may be the new preferred title for a company’s chief communications officer.

Only a few years ago this was the domain of nation-states toying with each other’s politics. It is now a serious challenge for businesses, non-profits and individuals. One in five communications professionals in the United States and Canada said their organizations had been affected by fake news, according to a survey last year by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

“The professionalization of deception is a growing threat,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told BuzzFeed News recently. “The broader notion of deception and influence operations has been around for some time, but over the past several years, we have seen . . . companies grow up that basically build their business models around deception.”

This growing threat of massive disinformation was one of the reasons the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last week reset their “Doomsday Clock” to 100 seconds to midnight. That is the closest the clock has ever been to Armageddon.

“The Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” the group said.

It went on to say, “Detecting and combatting this wave requires a change in skills and mindset for those who are charged with protecting [the] reputation of their employers.”

“It is a tectonic change in the craft of communications,” is how social media marketing pioneer Bob Pearson described it in a post on the PageTurner blog of the Arthur Page Society.

This is different from cybersecurity, where “hackers” steal credit card data or disrupt operations for ransom or political causes. This is about bad actors generating truly “fake news” to damage the reputation of a person or organization before they know how it happened. It can be done to manipulate stock prices, sink competitors and their products or do other harm.

Consider:

  • More than 95 percent of what is on the web is not easily findable by the public with search engines such as Google and Bing. It is in the “Deep Web,” where legitimate transactions occur such as financial recordkeeping and subscription-only content. It also is in the “Dark Web,” part of the Deep Web where everything from cyber warfare, crime syndicates and reputation bashers live.
  • Shady public relations firms publish rate cards of just how much they charge to plant false stories in reputable publications. Around the globe, clients are hiring “black PR” agencies that don’t care who the client is or their goals so long as they pay.
  • Others are quite happy to set up dozens of bogus social media accounts and pepper the web, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere with fake information – good about their clients and bad about their competitors or opponents. Just last month, Twitter announced it had removed 5,000 fake accounts linked to a marketing firm in Saudi Arabia. The same day, Facebook took down hundreds of accounts it said were linked to an advertising agency in the nation of Georgia.
  • Cheap and easy-to-use technology is resulting in a proliferation of videos where some – including elected officials – gleefully turn one soundbite into another where the subject appears to be saying the exact opposite. “The recent emergence of so-called ‘deepfakes’—audio and video recordings that are essentially undetectable as false—threatens to further undermine the ability of citizens and decision-makers to separate truth from fiction,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said.

BuzzFeed News and the Reporter investigative news site in Taiwan co-authored a chilling account earlier this month of a Taiwanese public relations entrepreneur who created and published fake news across thousands of web accounts. With a reporter standing next to him, the entrepreneur did it in a matter of minutes using his cell phone.

To counteract it, public relations leaders and their staffs will have to learn new skills.

“The mix of people in communications will change,” Pearson said in an interview. “They will have to have more tech expertise. If you are going to be a communications professional, you are going to have to be fluent in cyber issues and technology.”

Unfortunately, PR professionals appear largely unprepared.

The Plank Center found that nearly three out of five respondents saw cyber attacks on their organizations’ reputation as a threat. But fewer than one in eight said they planned to do anything about it.

There is help out there. A growing number of firms are now offering to monitor the Dark Web and provide other intelligence about the “bad actors.”

Pearson said in the end, though, it will be up to the PR pros joined at the hip with their cybersecurity and IT allies. The PR people will need to build fluency not only in the message platforms, technology and analytical tools. They also need to become expert at the psychology and personas of those who would do harm.

“You have to have an early-warning system,” he said.

Responding once the fake news is out if often too late.



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