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Published April 1st 2019

Interview: New Knowledge’s Robert Matney on Disinformation, Coordinated Attacks, and How Scared We Should Be

Robert Matney shares his expertise on the growing sophistication of coordinated disinformation attacks ahead of his talk at Now You Know Chicago

“You don’t have to do much more as a perpetrator of disinformation than to repeatedly raise the question. The burden of proof is fairly irrelevant.”

Robert is the Director of Communications at New Knowledge, a company that protects brands from manipulative online campaigns. He’s also a co-author of the US Senate report about Russian disinformation operations. He and I are talking about how scared brands should be of coordinated attacks centred around the distribution of disinformation.

Despite his friendly demeanor, I’ll leave our conversation feeling pretty unnerved by the growing sophistication of this kind of online behavior.

Quick note: Robert will be speaking on coordinated disinformation at Brandwatch’s Now You Know Chicago (8-10 May 2019). If you’re interested, make sure to grab your ticket now!

The level of risk

The New Knowledge solution gathers data from large chunks of the internet, and detects patterns of information sharing that deviate from the norm. The simplest way Robert puts it is:

“Normal humans sharing information online in a normal way presents a kind of data thumbprint. You look at the data that indicates typical or normal spread of information and you can say ‘ah, that’s an organic spread of information’. We build systems that, acknowledging that normal finger print, look for aberrations and departures from it, that detect signals of coordinated disinformation.”

The team works with brands to help them identify and get in front of potential coordinated attacks that could lead to reputational damage. According to New Knowledge’s own research, consumers are very much aware that disinformation around brands is a problem. At the same time, they also say that if their trust around a brand is affected, it’ll impact on their buying behavior.

“I think high profile brands should be extremely concerned,” Robert says. But he’s also quick to offer some balm for the burn.

“When we’re looking at state-sponsored disinformation, which has historically only rarely intersected with brand or industry, you’re looking at a really massive degree of sophistication. But when you’re looking at the way it tends to play out against brands, even the highest profile brands, you’re looking at less sophistication. It’s easier to detect earlier, and easier to get out in front of.”

Self-learning systems

Despite Robert’s comment on non-state sponsored campaigns being a little more rudimentary, he’s also clear that it is on the more obscure corners of the internet – including “the chans”, as he calls them – where factions of people gather to fabricate the most damaging narratives, and collaborate to create stronger and stronger brand disinformation campaigns. If brands don’t yet know how to make sense of those factions, those corners, those campaigns, they should be worried.

“There’s not quite a formal Lynda.com course on it, but if you go into the right online forums you can see a discussion about how to best construct disinformation, how to weaponize efforts to inflict maximum damage against brand trust. It’s interesting to watch the coordination – it becomes very crowd-sourced.”

He gives an example of someone who’ll share an asset they plan to use to disparage someone or some organization and ask for feedback.

“They will rapidly iterate to a maximally effective meme or campaign to launch out onto the internet at large, so this training and self-learning system reinforces itself.”

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” Robert says, using a famous quote often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, who held the title Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. “And it turns out that on the internet, enough is about seven times. That’s why proactivity is essential for brands.”

The strongest way repetition can boost trust in disinformation is to have an individual experience the message from multiple, seemingly unconnected sources. As plans for coordinated disinformation attacks continue to be iterated, it’s not hard to imagine how much havoc could be wrought by a small group of hyperactive individuals (whether state sponsored or not).

A sense of responsibility

Robert hasn’t always worked in disinformation, but his motivation for getting into the field is pretty refreshing.

He tells me that as someone who was an early adopter of the web and social media, and as someone who’s worked as a developer and technologist, he feels a strong sense of obligation to find solutions for the problems he sees.

“At the dawn of the social web, technologists failed to foresee the dangers of the systems we were creating.

“As the platforms evolved and they privileged virality and as our civil discourse increasingly came to take place in a set of systems that were optimized for marketing, not for civil discourse, we came to find ourselves in a pickle, where we remain.”

How we, as a society, find our way out of such a pickle is not yet clear.

Many thanks to Robert for taking time to speak with us. And, if you’re interested in misinformation, make sure to catch his presentation at our Now You Know conference in Chicago this May.

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