Tackling Information Operations, Propaganda and Dark Advertising: It’s not all Fake News

It’s all fake news anyway! 

Fake news is in the news. It's been headline activity ever since Trump helped propagate it within his ongoing media ramblings. Used now by him and his entourage of bewildered future inmates it has become a distraction technique during and after his presidential campaign. Having now successfully driven the narrative in order to be able to deflect anything that is said negatively about him, even by his beloved Fox News, as a five-year-old in a supermarket meltdown.  

Ask him about his taxes and he deflects. Ask him how half of his campaign staff have now ended up in jail or anything else that does not put him in a good light and he will castigate it as fake news in a game of "I know you are but what am I?" 

In fact, “fake news” has now become a catchall statement for anyone who doesn't really know what they are talking about or can't counterargue with facts to use when they do not like something or when a news report does not support their particular standpoint. It's far easier to simply label something as false news than do the research and take a reasoned articulated approach with righteous and pompous indignation. To add to this dilemma is that there has been a noticeable and significant increase in false news sites and a need for fact-checking both news stories and politicians' statements.  

Unfortunately, we do not have a political standards agency as we do for advertising that can hold politicians accountable for the lies they tell. 

You could refer to this post as fake news if you don’t like its content, and who knows it might even be.  

It’s not just about fake news: Information Operations 

The issue is that focusing on “fake news” alone distracts from the wider narratives propagated by Information Operations around the world. Yes it is an issue and it has been used by many “bad actors” to make false claims, promote agendas and distract from the truth. Some of these by “rogue states” or as acts of cyberwarfare, but only going after and chasing “fake news” misses out the tackling of content, narratives and whilst not necessarily fake promote disruptive agendas.  

Content does not necessarily have to be fake to be used by Information Operations. Often it can be opinion pieces or advertising that doesn’t make any statements that could be labelled as true or false but could be of one political bias or of a propagandist nature.  

It can also be in the form of curating legitimate content from trusted sources to promote a certain narrative. The new Demos report “Warring Songs: Information Operations in the Digital Age” goes into detail about the definition of Information Operations and some of the tactics they use. It looks at how we might tackle these techniques and tactics but first suggests we need to push past the narrative of only focusing on fake news. We will be expanding on this report later but it is certainly worth a read. 

Dark Advertising  

Together with fake news and information operations we would do well to consider dark advertising. Not only from these “bad actors” and Strategic Information Operations but also from media, big business, academia and politics.  

Dark Advertising, as it sounds, is the areas of digital, or direct, advertising that is particularly manipulative by its nature. It is usually targeted at the vulnerable and/or poorer population.  

In her book Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neill describes dark advertising as “ads that pinpoint people in great need and sell them false or overpriced promises. They find inequality and feast on it.” She goes on to state “Anywhere you see a great need and ignorance you’ll likely to see predatory ads.” O’Neill is here talking largely about academic advertising by both for profit and not for profit colleges that encourage vulnerable people to sign up to large student loans under the guise of ‘picking themselves up out of their current socio-economic situation by gaining a degree etc.’  

What’s wrong with that you may ask? Well, it’s the targeting of people who are ‘isolated’, ‘stuck’, ‘of low self-esteem’, ‘pregnant ladies’, ‘mothers on welfare’ people in ‘low-income jobs’, ‘recently experienced a death’, ‘have been physically or mentally abused’ the list goes on. 

Let me just reiterate here, what she is describing is a so-called ‘Academic Institution’ targeting people, vulnerable people, when they are at their most vulnerable because they know they are more likely to make emotionally based decisions. 

If this is what the education industry is doing, we can only imagine the length that Information Operations, politics and big business are going to, we only have to look at Cambridge Analytica for some insight to this.  

What about legislation? 

If we think our governments are going to step in and put down legislation that protects the average voter and consumer, to protect the vulnerable, just consider the fact that the previously mention Demos report states that of the 39 Information Operations they analysed 34 were aligned with a government of which 24 focused on internal audiences, that is audiences within their own country.  

We have to question that when governments, like the UK, have plans to address “online harms” what they define as “harm” and the impacts this has on freedoms of expression and free speech. We have to question do they purely focus on the online bully, fake news, fraud, terrorism and so on or do they also tackle Information Operations and dark advertising, do they include themselves, their behavioural insights team and their political campaigns within these plans.  


If fake news has done anything positive it has at least but people’s minds to question some of what they read and hear. Moving people on from here to critical thinking and analysis is surely the next, very challenging, step.  





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Article written by Sam our Founder, Editor and Writer on Behavioural Insights, Media, Communications, Data Science & Marketing Technology. Keeping a watchful eye and investigating the misuse of technology and behavioural science by big business, media and politicians in manipulating online narratives to sway public opinion. All opinions are his own. :

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