Exploring the Online Economy that Fuels Fake News
By Lion Gu, Vladimir Kropotov, and Fyodor Yarochkin (Senior Threat Researchers)
“Fake news” was relatively unheard of last year—until the U.S. election campaign period started, during which an explosion of misinformation campaigns trended. But despite its seemingly rampant spread, fake news is just one facet of public opinion manipulation and cyber propaganda that we see today. Whether it’s a company trying to promote a brand or a political party pushing an ideal, today’s information wars are often for control of the public’s worldview.
Our latest research paper, “The Fake News Machine: How Propagandists Abuse the Internet and Manipulate the Public”, delves into this phenomenon. It also tackles how a group with means and motivations, use of social media, and online promotion tools and services can effectively spread these campaigns. These are the components of what we call the “Fake News Triangle”, which we’ve found to be the pillars of success for any fake news and public opinion manipulation campaign.
We also explored the online marketplaces and services used to help carry out fake news campaigns. The Chinese, Russian, Arabic/Middle Eastern, and English marketplaces we visited have regional variances. Everything from social media promotions, creation of fake comments, and even online vote manipulation are sold at very reasonable prices. Surprisingly, we found that fake news campaigns aren’t always the handiwork of autonomous bots, but can also be carried out by real people via large, crowdsourcing programs.
The Cyber Kill Chain in Fake News Campaigns
Our research paper also illustrates how a fake news or public opinion manipulation campaign can be structured and run efficiently using the “Public Opinion Cycle”, where each stage is backed up by a range of available online services. This structure is based on the famous Cyber Kill Chain from Lockheed Martin, but applied to opinion manipulation. Case in point: a key story is prepared with secondary side stories planted during the weaponization phase, before online services are utilized for mass delivery.
Discrediting a Journalist for $55,000
Take this hypothetical example where a group seeks to silence and discredit a journalist. Let’s assume this popular journalist has 50,000 Twitter followers, 10,000 Facebook friends, and publishes articles that attract 200 comments per post.
The group can mount a four-week fake news campaign to defame the journalist using a range of services available in online marketplaces. Fake news unfavorable to the journalist can be commissioned once per week, promoted with 50,000 retweets and likes as well as 100,000 visits—all for $2,700 per week.
The group can also buy comments to create an illusion of believability. The purchase can start with 500 comments, 400 of which can be positive, 80 neutral, and 20 negative. Spending $1,000 for this kind of service will translate to 4,000 comments. After establishing an imagined credibility, an attacker can launch his smear campaign against his target. Poisoning a Twitter account with 200,000 bot followers costs $240. Ordering a total of 12,000 comments with most bearing negative sentiment and references/links to fake stories against the journalist will cost around $3,000. Dislikes and negative comments on a journalist’s article, and promoting them with 10,000 retweets or likes and 25,000 visits, can cost $20,400 in the marketplaces we have seen.
The result? For around $55,000, a user who reads, watches, and further searches the campaign’s fake content can be swayed into having a fragmented and negative impression of the journalist. A more daunting consequence would be how the story, exposé or points the journalist wanted to divulge or raise will be drowned out by a sea of noise fabricated by the campaign.
While the scenario may just speculative, versions of it do occur regularly in the real world. This was recently exemplified by a journalist in Mexico who became the target of a smear campaign.
Of course, public opinion manipulation and proliferation of fake news isn’t new—and our research explores the long-standing theories behind them. Throughout human history, any time one new means of communication arrives and significantly outpaces the previous generation, a period of rectification inevitably occurs. Whether it was the printing press, radio, TV or now the internet, it always takes society time to educate itself to the new communication medium before self-regulation and new social norms arise. We’re seeing it happen today with the efforts of social media sites and governments to crack down on the spread of fake news.
Our research paper also provides best practices on how people can better detect and lessen the impact of fake news, as well as analysis techniques we applied to uncover such manipulation campaigns on social media. Awareness of these techniques can also help institutions such as governments and credible media outlets determine how to best counteract them. Applied critical thinking is necessary not only to find the truth, but to keep civil society intact for future generations.
The entire technical details of our research and insights on fake news and public opinion manipulation can be found in our latest paper, “The Fake News Machine: How Propagandists Abuse the Internet and Manipulate the Public”.