Oct 3, 2019

Disinformation as a service crosses borders with ease

llustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing industry of commercial disinformation services based in countries like Russia and the Philippines have the language skills, local contacts and cultural background to influence an English language conversation half a world away.

Driving the news: A new report from the security firm Recorded Future documents two campaigns that it paid Russian-speaking, dark web propagandists-for-hire to run.

  • One campaign promoted a fictitious temp agency, while the other attacked it.
  • The Russians, however, didn't know the company was fake.

What they're saying: "Troublingly, we realized the process was quite easy," said Roman Sannikov, one of the researchers behind the report.

Disinformation-as-a-service providers rentable, private-sector contractors providing full-service disinformation for anybody who can pay for it have claimed to operate in English-speaking countries before. But the Recorded Future report appears to be the first time such activity in an English-speaking country has been documented by a third party.

  • There's a distinction here between for-hire services and government-sponsored operations, like the one by Russia's Internet Research Agency that spread propaganda on social media during the 2016 election.
  • "While it might be the first time researchers have written about it, given how polished the process was, I don't think this was the first time they've done something like that," said Sannikov.

The big picture: National boundaries and linguistic barriers did not hinder the two campaigns Recorded Future set up.

  • Beyond well-formed social media campaigns, the contractors hired by Recorded Future had reporters on retainer to run stories they drafted.
  • According to a menu of prices sent to the researchers, the contractors had plants in a variety of outlets, including a prominent design website ($8,404.80 an article), a major financial newspaper ($49,440), a famous list and news site (price not listed), and several local sites.
  • Recorded Future purchased and successfully placed two stories. While they didn't release the names of the publications — meaning actual access to the newspapers on the menu of options is not verified — they did say one of the articles ran in a well-established newspaper.
  • Between the two contractors, one was able to write an article in flawless English on the first draft, said Sannikov. The other's first draft read slightly like that of a non-native speaker, but was fixed when Recorded Future told them to do better.
  • The contractors offered a menu of services. The one hired to defame the fake firm even offered to make false police reports.

Axios has discussed some of the implications of these commercial disinformation services in the past — namely, that no American law would prevent a political campaign from contracting one to run a disinformation campaign on its behalf.

  • But as the report makes clear, the business applications of damaging a rival company online and in the press shouldn't be understated.

The bottom line: "A lot of the focus has been from the public side — impacting elections or law enforcement — as it should be," said Sannikov. "But we think that there hasn’t been as much discussion of the private sector as they could be. "

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