Are some PR agencies evil?
Yes. Some PR agencies specialize in destruction rather than enhancement of reputation. Some of these agencies work for governments or political parties, others are private contractors, and all have a similar agenda: Lay false trails, generate fake news, and use social media to weaken or decimate rivals by manipulating public opinion for nefarious purposes.
It isn't just fringe groups, but the apparatus of large governmental institutions like the National Security Administration (NSA) and the UK's Joint Threats Intelligence Group. It's even said that the NSA has apparently used negative online reputation management to discredit some people's search results, as was revealed in the "Disruption: Operational Playbook".
Have you ever been the target of online criticism from a former customer, employee, or business associate? If you have, you know how it can hurt. Especially when it's untrue, the criticism can range from someone who's a little worked up to seriously unhinged. But seldom do they have an agenda and the resources at hand to cause wholesale destruction. But governments and corporations do have those resources.
How do negative PR campaigns work?
The campaigns these agencies design are both ingenious and diabolical in nature. It starts with a rumor told here, a half-truth there. Then documents magically show up that are seemingly innocuous at first, but when combined with bombshells to come, become the lynchpins in a string of false logic bombs.
With a little belief and enough circumstantial evidence, people with even the smallest affinity for the message of the lie will swallow it hook, line, and sinker, especially if the message confirms what they already believe. This is called confirmation bias.
Below is an image of how social media creates an information bubble catered to our existing beliefs, thereby reinforcing our existing bias.' This psychological trick is commonly exploited by perpetrators of fake news.
Western spy agencies like Britain’s GCHQ and the NSA apparently devote significant manpower and resources to online “intelligence” operations that consist of negative SEO tactics aimed at enemies of the state. They use fake names, hidden IP addresses, planted news stories, and other smoke-and-mirror tactics to publish damning or unflattering content about their targets.
They can even go as far as to plant fake evidence, which is later "discovered" by an anonymous source and fed to the press at an opportune time. A few Google searches will verify it as "true," and since people hold what Google presents in such high esteem, it is all the easier to believe.
Can PR destroy governments?
Done right, yes it can. During the DefCon conference in Las Vegas, a gentleman by the name of Chris Rock (not the comedian) demonstrated to a room full of about 1000 hackers how to take over a government. The use of negative reputation attacks, hacking, social engineering, and even weaponizable drones available on Amazon can be used to destroy one person, or an entire government. In his talk, Mr. Rock discussed inserting fake news into hacked government websites, moving money between bank accounts not to steal, but to create an apparent (fake) paper trail of corruption. Then, at just the right moment, triggering the populace to revolution by starting an online conversation based on lies his team had planted. He demonstrated that with the right resources on hand, it was frighteningly easy.
Who’s targeted by negative online reputation campaigns?
Whether it's someone working at a dark PR agency, a clandestine government PR lab like the Russian Internet Research Agency, or a member of Anonymous, targeting people with negative public relations programs has never been easier. Google announced they are taking aim at fake news sites. But doing so may prove very difficult because the problem isn't the sites; it's the people publishing on them. By the time Google cracks down on a publisher, the damage will already have been done, and the perpetrators were long gone.
Who is targeted by negative PR?
A great Glenn Greenwald piece introduced spy agencies’ sophisticated brand of negative SEO and touched on its implications for online reputation management. As Greenwald pointed out, the principal targets of these tactics aren’t heads of state, military commanders, or international criminals. They’re far more likely to be:
- “Hacktivists” who publicly sympathize with groups like Anonymous and LulzSec
- People suspected of—but perhaps not charged with—online financial crimes
- Radical political activists
- Potential whistleblowers and leakers, like Edward Snowden (though he didn’t appear to be targeted by this program)
Although heads of state are just as vulnerable if the attacker has access to the right resources, as Greenwald noted, it’s a tad worrying that people who haven’t been charged with a crime—regardless of their politics or motivations—could face overwhelming reputation damage at the hands of various agencies.
How does negative reputation manipulation work?
Online reputation spycraft comes in various flavors, some juicier than others. Here’s a sampling:
- Honey traps. In a classic honey trap, an agent seduces the target (or hires someone to do so). This places them in a compromising position, preferably with photographic or video evidence (insert porn music here). The agent or an associate then posts the material online, either on the target’s own accounts and social media platforms (after obtaining his or her passwords via hacking techniques) or on high-authority websites with weak gatekeepers.
The agent may also create written content detailing the experience or send evidence of the encounter to the target’s colleagues, friends, neighbors—anyone in a position to damage the victim’s reputation online.
- False content. An agent might make up (or use exaggerated real-life details) to create false or misleading blog posts, social media posts, and websites that portray the target in a negative light. The Pizzagate fiasco was an example of this.
- Social media and email manipulation. By stealing the target’s passwords and other personal information, the agent can infiltrate that person’s social media and email accounts, posting or sending offensive or unflattering comments, photographs, and other material.
- Unauthorized leaks. Agents may leak damning information about an individual or company to news publications, competitors, and others potentially in a position to harm the target’s internet reputation. In many cases, this just takes a little research using publicly available information.
- Sustained negative content campaigns. Using surrogates and various cloaking techniques, agents may post negative reviews, exposés, and other unflattering pieces of content on online review sites like Yelp, consumer alert sites like RipOffReport, social media outlets, and standalone websites. Often ‘straw man’ figures are used, fake names and identities online. All these venues can influence search results and create highly visible web reputation problems for targets.
Are you a target?
Are you a...:
- Leader of a terrorist organization
- A political leader who doesn’t align with the US government
- The person the NSA spies on
If you are none of the above, you may not be a target. But if you aren't a target, then you may be a participant in the fake news cycle to some extent.
But just because you don’t fit into the classic target category doesn’t mean you can afford not to learn how negative online reputation management works or respect the power of the dark side. Spy agencies don’t have a monopoly on these tactics: Anyone with the resources to buy up Internet domains and create negative content can do serious harm to you or your business for less than $100.
It’s critical to monitor your social media channels, search results, digital PR, and other online points of contact to identify potential threats to your reputation before they become serious. When creating your own content, use SEO best practices when publishing to give it the best chance of ranking well. And if you do think your online image could use a touch-up, you should learn more about how online reputation management works.
Further reading: Glenn Greenwald's awesome article
About the author
Kent Campbell is the chief strategist for Reputation X, a San Francisco Bay Area-based online reputation management services firm. He has over 15 years of experience with SEO, Wikipedia editing, review management, and online reputation strategy. Kent has helped celebrities, leaders, executives, and marketing professionals improve the way they are seen online. Kent writes about reputation, SEO, Wikipedia, and PR-related topics.