Weapons are used to harm opponents in conflicts and wars. Throughout history, weapons have been so prevalent that they have become a metaphor for other things. All can cause collateral damage and sometimes even target the innocent. A weapon doesn’t have to use gunpowder or other explosives to be effective or dangerous. In fact, cyberwarfare, digital propaganda, deep fakes and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns are very effective weapons used every day. Digital disinformation is a form of weaponized media and so are legitimate social media advocacy campaigns. Weaponized media is the next-generation crisis confronting corporations and societies.
While it may not be immediately lethal, weaponized media can eventually kill off corporations, constructive government and productive societies. The troubling phenomena are how much more effective they have become and how quickly they spread. Weaponized media is cancer that can overcome you before you even realize you have a problem.
Impact of Weaponized Media
If left unchecked, reputations, trust and basic human civility can all be destroyed through weaponized media. Our society is ill-prepared to deal with the threat. Even worse, this next-generation crisis will likely hit businesses much more severely and sooner than any of us hope. Unfortunately, the challenge is so daunting that many simply try to ignore it. However, even a modest effort can help you avoid being a soft target. Here’s a quick primer on the challenge and how to begin a 3rd generation defense against this next-generation crisis.
You can see evidence of weaponized media in the dramatic growth of specialized news channels tailored to every political extreme, reports of foreign states using social media to agitate for social conflict and even the various sides of the term “fake news.” Just in day-to-day encounters, businesses are becoming increasingly susceptible to public outrage that often uses social media as an accelerant. Increasingly, the rules and approaches that previously worked are no longer enough. While current best practices can help you get a chance, they simply may not be sufficient to seamlessly overcome this next-generation crisis. In fact, in this next iteration, your business may be deliberately and maliciously targeted.
The environmental movement has been using activist tactics against businesses for decades. Over time businesses learned to anticipate, respond and often mitigate these issues. Now, these issues are more important to many of businesses’ stakeholders including investors and employees, so the challenge has morphed. This became clearer after the Starbucks incident in Philadelphia last year. Starbucks responded aggressively, but it was not enough. Rather, many felt the incident demanded broader societal change.
These issues, which sometimes appear to come out of nowhere, may just be the tip of the iceberg. They demonstrate the growing power and engagement of the public through the social media tools and networks that are empowering them. You only need to skim through these 50 examples of social media damaging businesses to see how one or more could spin out of control for your business. Companies are now struggling to respond to this changing landscape. Imagine the more severe impact if state sponsors, issue activists, competitors, or criminals maliciously bring AI tools against your business.
AI and Next-Generation Crisis
Not long ago we were marveling at the Google bot’s ability to carry on a human phone conversation. Now we are encountering deep fakes that are virtually indistinguishable from real people we know. I wonder if we will use other AI bots to filter through the deep fakes. Has the AI arms race already begun? A natural reaction may be to put up more barriers to interaction. Ironically, that isolation may make it even easier to use weaponize media against our business interests. This is certainly a next-generation crisis without an easy solution.
The bright young people at Facebook and other social media platforms probably could have avoided some of their recent troubles, if they had the benefit of more diverse experiences, skills, and perspectives in their backgrounds. Ironically, diversity for the tech sector may be to include more traditional, experienced perspectives. In a crisis, you get more wisdom from those who have lived through the nuances of a previous crisis and the full range of life experiences.
Years in the Making
There is evidence that Russian sponsored groups have already targeted businesses through weaponized media. Evidently, to undermine U.S. interests, they have already acted to create domestic resistance to energy projects. If you don’t believe that this could affect you, the U.S House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has reported that Russian sources took at least 9,097 social media actions “about U.S. energy projects or environmental issues between 2015 and 2017.” With their AI capabilities and increased sophistication, imagine how much more aggressive other state-sponsored social media attacks could be on businesses in 2019.
A weakened economy or social conflict tends to reduce a country’s international focus and global influence. It’s easy to see why state sponsors would use weaponized media to undermine other countries’ institutions. This next-generation crisis allows state businesses to destabilize a country while simultaneously weakening a business competitor.
Governments aren’t the only source of this next-generation crisis. You should also anticipate assaults from hackers, terrorists, political activists, disgruntled employees and activist investors. Their growing sophistication and the availability of AI bots have truly weaponized media to maliciously target businesses.
What can you do?
The odds are increasing that your business will have to deal with this in the next several months or years. The longer you wait to prepare, the more expensive it will get and vulnerable you will be. If you wait until after the attack starts, it will be very difficult to overcome.
So, if the task is so daunting, why are we raising the alarm? Well, there is a lot you can do to overcome weaponized media, whether it’s social, digital or traditional. Even if the very brightest think tanks haven’t figured it all out, at least you can make your company a more difficult, less vulnerable target. While preparing for the next-generation crisis may not be as simple as only needing to be faster than the other guy, there is a bit of that.
What do you do? A good start is strengthening the same measures that you would use to overcome a traditional crisis and building trust with stakeholders. You want to build a strong foundation, so they will be more receptive to crisis communications from the company. Next, you develop multi-channel vehicles for communication. This ensures access to audiences, even if some channels are blocked.
3rd Generation Team for Next-Generation Crisis
If your adversary is using weaponized media in a digital environment, you should assume they may be able to deny you access to your digital countermeasures. In this next-generation crisis, consider what you would do in a massive denial of service or regional power failure. Develop channels across a range of technologies.
If you haven’t already done so, prepare for this next generation crisis by building a 3rd generation crisis management team now. The methodologies may be similar, but the players of today have new titles, responsibilities, and perspectives. You must bring to the table the right experts to exchange information, preparations and best practices. They will help you develop workable responses to the weaponized media intentions of any aggressor. Involve the most experienced responders and strategists you can find internally and externally. Don’t limit yourself to one function.
Develop defensive capabilities, plans and test your approaches and systems so you are continuously improving. Build alliances, supporters and your reputation so you can get the benefit of the doubt until you have time to respond. Then, merge that with as much media monitoring and analytics as you can justify. Use investigators and communicators to identify inconsistencies and develop countermeasures. Let the information inform your strategies and tactics.
A next-generation crisis management team will add to your knowledge of tomorrow’s risks and ensure practiced leadership. Use them to respond to the challenges of today and prepare for the weaponization media threats of tomorrow.
By John Ambler