Memes, doxxing and doctored content: Understanding the tactics of disinformation for brands

By Sharb Farjami, CEO, Storyful

Social media has revolutionized the way people experience the world. It has connected news organizations and publishers to eyewitnesses in volatile regions of the world. It has armed brands with a direct line to their target audience and served as a critical communication tool for corporations. But social media is a double-edged sword — one which some people maliciously wield — making the power to reach and connect people subject to manipulation and mischief.

For nearly ten years, Storyful has watched the social media landscape become more complex, sophisticated and treacherous for brands. We’ve mapped the disparate ways information travels from fringe sites to mainstream media to shape brand perception and influence public discourse in record speeds. Our work with newsrooms to verify and understand social content in breaking news situations affords us a unique understanding of an ecosystem that is increasingly polluted with mis- and disinformation.

Recently, we analyzed digital and social media posts across mainstream and fringe networks, including Reddit, Snapchat, 4chan and Gab, filtering through billions of posts to understand some of the most insidious types of social media tactics used to target brands: memes, doxxing, review attacks and doctored content. In the new environment of social media, marketers need to be aware of how this information spreads so they can protect their brands and their own reputations.

Meme campaigns are one of the most prevalent tactics for disseminating brand propaganda online in the public space. Often coordinated on fringe networks, these images spread at an alarming rate due to the nature of visual content. This makes them difficult for brands to curb once they’re in circulation.

During the Nike-Colin Kaepernick controversy, hundreds of memes were launched in the same visual layout as the ad, mocking the quarterback and the brand. On fringe platforms like 4chan, alt-right posters revived issues of cheap foreign labor and sexual harassment lawsuits against executives to smear Nike. Seven hours after Nike announced the campaign on September 3, mentions of “Nike” and “labor” increased 3,110 percent, with the hashtag #BoycottNike peaking on Twitter. Popular memes emerged from the fringes, including a meme with the Nike logo paired with “Just Blew It,” driving the conversation on Twitter.

While the brand experienced an uptick in sales and stock price, the outpouring of nefarious memes certainly distorted brand sentiment for some.

Doxxing is the practice of researching and publishing someone’s personal information to fringe and mainstream sites with the goal of embarrassing or inviting unwanted harassment. The practice involves posting anything from photographs and telephone numbers to credit card numbers and political contribution histories — and can leave a brand’s key decision-makers vulnerable to anything from hate mail to death threats.

Journalists in particular have long been doxxed, but in recent years, the practice is spreading to prominent company executives. Take for example when Procter & Gamble’s Gillette released its “We Believe” ad. In response, key decision makers at the company and the creative staff behind the ad became the targets of smear campaigns on Reddit and a doxxing campaign on fringe sites. The doxxing even extended to the social media profiles of Gillette’s North America Brand Director and parent company P&G’s Chief Brand Officer.

Review attacks
Review attacks target consumer perceptions of a product or place on review sites such as Yelp, Glassdoor and TripAdvisor. People booking a hotel or restaurant look at reviews before taking action, and bogus reviews can seriously skew a potential customer’s opinion. While a bad review can break a business, every one-star increase to a review score can lead to a five to nine percent increase in revenue.

Last year, when YouTube personality Vitaly “VitalyzdTv” Zdorovetskiy got kicked out of the Boca Raton Resort and Club on New Year’s Eve, he called on his nine million YouTube followers to leave negative reviews. This caused the hotel’s rating to plummet on Yelp and Google Reviews, going from five stars to one-and-a-half stars in less than 24 hours.

Doctored content
Doctored content is a rising threat to brands and society at large. Tampering with and distorting images and videos is easier and more accessible than ever before. In a matter of minutes, an individual or brand can be implicated in controversy.

In the wake of an incident in April 2018 in which two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store, Starbucks announced plans to shut down 8,000 stores in the US for four hours to train employees on racial sensitivity. Less than a week later, fake coupons with the header “We’re Sorry” in Starbucks’ brand colors and style began circulating on mainstream social media, promising free drinks for people of color. The campaign commanded mainstream attention, forcing Starbucks to speak out and clarify that the coupon was a hoax.

These examples are only a taste of the tactics used to influence brand perception online. That’s why social understanding is more important than ever for safeguarding brand reputation. By understanding the nuance in the conversations around your brand and industry, companies can get ahead of digital threats and tackle them head on.

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