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Monday, 08 June 2015 05:00

How Do You Know Who To Trust?

Written by  Vicki Thomas

column-6-8We’re six months into 2015 so it seemed fitting to take a look-back at the first half of this year…but then I stumbled onto a fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine - and I changed my mind.

You’ve likely heard of Internet trolls. According to Wikipedia, an Internet troll is:

is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional responseor of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Admittedly I didn’t know much about trolls until I started reading about the Internet Research Agency. This St. Petersburg, Russia-based organization was (and likely still is) responsible for spreading fake information on the Internet. Fake information that is so well written and believable that many people actually do believe it and end up getting caught up in the web of misinformation.

Imagine that you’re the CEO of Columbia Chemicals in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and you discovered these Twitter messages on Sept. 11, 2014:

A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals," a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance. (The Agency, The New York Times Magazine)

What would you have done? How would you have reacted? Can you turn to your business continuity plan for this?

And then later when a couple of hours later you discover that the Tweets, YouTube videos, websites (yes websites), and other messages were all fake and a hoax - how would you have reacted? Imagine you are the CEO of the company that is according to the Internet in flames and leaking chemicals into the air - how would you respond and react to this?

It turns out that this Columbia Chemicals hoax was the work of the Internet Research Agency:

It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didnt just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off. (The Agency, The New York Times Magazine)

It is becoming startlingly clear that the Internet cannot be ignored when it comes to business continuity. Miscommunication and misinformation are at an entirely new level with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, online forums, chat rooms, comments, and click-to-publish websites.

Marshall McLuhan famously said: The medium is the message. In other words, the medium with which the message is communicated is as equally or if not more powerful than the message itself. To take this a bit further, McLuhan actually preferred: The medium is the massage.

Which when you think about the Internet, Internet trolls, hoaxes, misinformation, and disinformation is very telling.

How do you know what is real and what isn’t? How do you communicate the truth when you’re surrounded by the opposite?

If your business continuity plan doesn't include plans and measures for communications, social media, Internet, and website security - i's time that it did. Luckily for Colombia Chemicals, they were prepared and within two hours were able to send out messages letting people know that the messages, websites and videos were fake and that there wasn’t a fire at the plant.

It is worth reading the entire article about the Internet Research Agency to understand the realities of Internet communications and to get a glimpse into how easy it is to spread misinformation and fake content online. After all, anyone can post anything on the Internet. What happens when it’s about your company?