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How does the misinformation economy affect business?

In our previous article, we discussed the financial risks that misinformation could pose to businesses and financial players. But is misinformation a real and serious threat to the reputation of organizations?

How did the disinformation business emerge? 

To begin with, let's remember that the term fake news brings together several concepts relating to false information, which have different origins and objectives. 

First, there is misinformation, which is false information spread by a third party who believes it to be true. This concept encourages the spread of rumors.

Next, let us look at malinformation, which is accurate information disseminated by a third party to harm one or more individuals or legal entities. This situation occurs, in particular after a data leak. 

Finally, there is disinformation, which is the deliberate sharing of false information by a third party to cause harm or profit. It is a constructed and targeted attack. The European Commission defined it this way in a report on the dangers of disinformation published in March 2018. "Disinformation [...] includes all false, inaccurate, or misleading information designated, presented, and promoted to cause public harm intentionally or for profit."

While political motivations are often at the root of disinformation campaigns, disinformers also find economic causes. With the emergence of digital technology and new, more informal, but structured communication channels, journalists have lost a kind of monopoly on information. Thus, disinformation has found its economic model and its consumers.

To illustrate this point, let's go back to the 2016 American presidential campaign. At the time, Donald Trump was a candidate and was losing ground. He began to claim that the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was rigging the election. It was during a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, that the future Republican president said, " I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged; I have to be honest", claiming that he heard more and more about evidence of this alleged fraud. Faced with this speech and the fervor of the supporters, a young graduate student, Cameron Harris, in need of money, came up with the idea of fabricating an article corroborating this speech called " BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse". In the article, a fictional worker, Randall Prince, discovered thousands of pre-filled ballots for the Democratic candidate in a warehouse. Within days, his article went viral and was shared over 6 million times. His site, which runs ads through a significant online advertising network, gets thousands of daily hits. This success resulted in $5,000 in advertising revenue for this one article and $22,000 in earnings for the entire campaign. 

These gains should be compared to those of the disinformation site The Gateway Pundit, as Julien Mardas, founder of Buster.Ai, explained to Document Expo. Created in 2004 and of conservative leanings, this "media" claims to fight for freedom of expression. Its founder, Jim Hoft, asserts that "Here, people can say what they want [...] And it's not a Google moron who is going to shut them up". Indeed, after several journalistic reports pointed out the misleading nature of the content published on the site, Google removed it from its advertising program. Until then, the site had earned up to $200,000 a month in advertising revenue. 

How does misinformation become dangerous for businesses? 

By finding fertile ground on the internet, which accelerates and amplifies its spread, disinformation presents both direct and indirect threats to organizations. Based on a pattern similar to that of campaigns targeting public figures, companies can be the target of attacks against their managers, their business conduct, their products, and even their partners. 

To illustrate and materialize the processes of disinformation, we can cite a brand that has been the object of this process many times over the last decade, namely the Swiss coffee roaster Nespresso, a subsidiary of Nestlé. Health, pollution, recycling, and the attacks mainly concern using aluminum capsules. The objective here is to understand how disinformation campaigns are structured. The first step is based on an easily achievable observation. From this observation will emerge a line of reasoning that must be as simplistic as possible to create a stereotype, i.e. an "idea, a ready-made opinion, accepted without reflection and repeated without having been subjected to critical examination, by a person or a group" according to the CNRTL (French National Centre for Textual and Lexical Resources). 

Based on this stereotype, misinformers construct a simple process that favors the reader's adherence while arousing the desire to share the information. In the case of Nespresso, we could quickly establish that the capsule is made of metal, in this case, aluminum, that mining and steelmaking activities are polluting, and that. As a result, the coffees offered by Nespresso degrade more than bean-to-cup coffee solutions. At a time when the consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly visible, pollution is a significant issue and ripe for misinformation, causing anxiety for the reader.

This is the process highlighted by French journalist Elisa Thévenet, who specializes in disinformation. Disinformers "surf on anxieties and assert without proof". Thus, "we have transformed our suppositions into evidence". This evidence will play on two biases of the individual. The first, known as confirmation bias, leads the individual to approve information if it corroborates a reasoning that the shares. 

This phenomenon is reinforced by overexposure to information, which strengthens the confirmation bias, as indicated in the Council of Europe's report on information disorder. “Daily, we spend twice as much time online compared with 2008. During that time, we consume incredible amounts of information and inevitably make mistakes. Recent research by Filippo Menczer and colleagues shows we are so utterly inundated that we share untruths.” 

Secondly, as our societies are built on communication, the need to warn can be seen as a natural act. Communication theorist James Carey states in his book Communication as Culture that “The transmission view of communication is the commonest in our culture— perhaps in all industrial cultures... It is defined by terms such as ‘imparting,’ ‘sending,’ ‘transmitting,’ or ‘giving information to others.’”. But he says there is also a ritual conception of information that is not about “the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” He adds that “under a ritual view [of communication] news is not information but drama”.

 

Thus, like contradictory analysis, the scientific reality is relegated to the background. In the case of coffee, life cycle analyses make it possible to establish a product's exact externalities and compare it with alternatives. The entire value chain is analyzed, and the methods used to arrive at a result are outlined in the study. This exercise allows a debate based on rational facts, not stereotypes. 

What are the consequences of misinformation? 

Let's take the example of Nespresso. The development of its technologies required 16 years of research and development, millions of Swiss francs of investment, and after several failed launches, the brand needed several years to build a solid brand image.

The various misinformation campaigns focused on the capsules, the composition of the coffees, and recycling, caused considerable financial damage. From a monopoly position, Nespresso was quickly challenged by players developing biodegradable capsules. This competition had little effect on the Swiss coffee roaster's business. On the other hand, these years of misinformation or even disinformation linked to the risks of the capsule have contributed to the revival of coffee bean solutions. Traditional percolator machines are enjoying a resurgence of interest, having been overshadowed by the benefits of portioned coffee. Between 2019 and 2021, sales volumes have exploded by 128%, with the number of machines sold rising from 150,000 in 2019 to 560,000, according to GIFAM (French Interprofessional grouping of manufacturers of household appliances and equipment).

Moreover, in one of its articles, the newspaper Les Echos confirms this trend and mentions "ecological considerations [...] with the use of more ethical producers, and quantities adapted to its needs". This seemingly innocuous sentence insinuates that Nespresso's image is associated with an intensive production method and suggests that roasters offering bean-to-cup coffees are more virtuous, even though how coffee is packaged and extracted is completely divorced from production methods.

While Nespresso does not disclose details of its figures, the Swiss firm has gone from a monopoly position to an estimated 8% market share by value in ten years, according to Challenges magazine.

In June 2020, French cosmetics giant L'Oréal and retailer Carrefour were accused of racism. On Twitter, an Internet user posted a video, shared more than 8,000 times, in which products intended for black skin were equipped with anti-theft devices, unlike those intended for white skin. 

Still, on the blue bird network, L'Oréal quickly clarified that all the products in the range concerned, regardless of skin color, were produced on the same line, using the same processes. The presence of RFID locks only on products for darker skin was simply due to a difference in production date. Indeed, the implementation of chips was recent, and the products for lighter skins had been produced before. Therefore only this department store was publicly concerned by this rumor. 

What is brand safety?

Let's look at an indirect prejudice for a brand since it is not directly a victim of misinformation: finding its name associated with a digital space that disseminates false information or, more broadly, the content of a violent, pornographic, or racist nature proves catastrophic in terms of reputation. Brands must therefore be careful about the channels through which their communications are disseminated so that they do not damage the brand image. Brand safety thus covers the practices of companies that make it possible to avoid buying advertising space on sites that do not convey the values with which they wish to be associated.

Finally, appearing on misinformation sites is equivalent to generating advertising revenue for the latter since the sale of space is their main source of income, as we mentioned earlier in this article. 

How is Buster.Ai a protection tool? 

Buster.Ai simplifies and accelerates the verification of information to reduce business risks thanks to the most advanced AI, making it an integral part of the brand safety strategy of companies. 

Indeed, Buster.Ai offers an application and API that can immediately verify any statement. The technology developed by Buster.Ai can read texts, continuously enrich its model and analyze thousands of sources to deliver not only extracts from relevant sources but also a "Supported" or "Refuted" verdict. Buster.Ai's artificial intelligence accelerates the understanding and analysis of any subject.

These technologies enable a proactive approach to detecting trends and tracking publications that are related to them or that refer to the brand.

Brand managers can sift and filter crucial information to validate or invalidate specific data, enabling them to make the right communication decision. Sensitive brands can anticipate misinformation or misinformation that could affect their reputation while deploying the right strategy that uses appropriate language.