Episode 14: Deepfakes and hoaxes: Sophisticated disinformation campaigns are disrupting the corporate sector

Emerge stronger through disruption podcast Podcast, PwC United States November 2021

Can you believe your own eyes? As more-sophisticated forms of disinformation infiltrate the corporate sector, the answer is often a resounding “no.” Deepfakes and hoaxes are putting companies at risk — and making a profit for perpetrators.

PwC Global Crisis Leader Kristin Rivera and US Partner Philip Upton break down the types of disinformation disrupting business around the world.

Release date: November 2021

Full transcript

Kristin Rivera: Welcome to our podcast series, Emerge stronger through disruption. I'm Kristin Rivera, and I lead PwC’s Global Forensics practice and our Global Crisis Centre. I'm coming to you yet again from my home office in Larkspur, California.

In each episode of this series, I talk with global colleagues about the challenges facing business leaders as they navigate disruption.

Today, I'm joined by Philip Upton, a PwC US partner and author of an article on disinformation.

Philip, as you know, I'm fascinated by your article. And I thought that it was one of the most interesting and relevant pieces of thought leadership in recent memory. I couldn't be more delighted to be here with you today to discuss it. For our listeners, we'll post a link to the article in the description, or you can search it under “disinformation PwC.”

One of the things I love about PwC is we're a community of passionate problem solvers. So, Philip, why don't you introduce yourself to our listeners by sharing the types of problems you solve?

Philip Upton: Thank you, Kristin. It's lovely to be here with you. It's an interesting question because I've helped my clients in many ways over the years. I started off in the audit business, helping clients with, of course, audits, and then moved into a space called Business Recovery Services, where I helped clients that were in distress.

But for the last 25 years, I've helped my clients respond to disputes, investigations and regulatory matters.

The legal process has always been central to what I do. And analyzing data has been central to the services that I provided to my clients. It's this focus on information that led me to an interest in disinformation and its impact on society.

Kristin: So, let's start by just setting a foundation. What is disinformation?

Philip: Disinformation is fabricated or deliberately manipulated information that’s made public in order to create conspiracy theories and rumors with the intent of causing harm to its target. It might be in a written form, it could be a video, could be simply an audio recording, but the key is that inaccurate information has been weaponized with an intent to cause harm.

Kristin: So, I think we've all certainly seen evidence of that in the media over the last year or two. And I can certainly understand why this is an important problem for our society. But tell us a little bit about how disinformation causes issues.

Philip: Well, disinformation poses a real challenge to society, as it undermines our trust in our institutions and each other.

There's been a lot of publicity around disinformation and its impact on politics, public health and celebrities. But given my focus, I was really interested to find out if disinformation was becoming a real threat to corporations.

Kristin: That's interesting. So, what'd you find?

Philip: Well, there are cases of disinformation affecting companies, and there are criminals that will push inaccurate material into the public realm for a fee.

Let me give you some examples, to spice things up: There's a forged US Department of Defense memo, which stated that a semiconductor giant’s planned acquisition of another tech company had prompted national security concerns. This naturally caused the stocks of both companies to fall. Or there's the widely publicized attacks on a businessman causing him to lose a bidding war. I don't think that's fair play.

Another one would be a false story reported that a bottled water company's products had been contaminated. And to finish it up, a foreign state’s TV network falsely linked 5G to adverse health effects, giving the adversary’s company more time to develop their own 5G network to compete with US businesses.

Kristin: So you mentioned that there are criminals who are carrying out these acts for a fee. Who are these people and what kind of threats do they pose?

Philip: Well, there are a number of actors, as we call them. They’re state actors trying to give their state an edge. There’s corporate actors seeking to promote their company at the expense of others.

And finally, there are opportunistic actors who are often criminals seeking to benefit personally from these acts. These lead to a variety of threats, including fake news stories, fake social media accounts, marketing on social media platforms, marketing on search engines via search engine optimisation, and deepfakes of videos, audio and text, all of which can be highly damaging to the parties that they are targeting.

Kristin: So I have to say, when I think of disinformation, I tend to think of the attacks that are more on individuals and less on the impact of companies. So, how can these attacks actually cause damage to corporations?

Philip: Well, it manifests in damage to a company's brand and reputation, loss of social and customer trust, and, of course, financial losses.

Kristin: And, it seems, financial gain to the perpetrators.

So you mentioned again, you know, earlier that the criminals who are focused on disinformation have a fairly well-established business model. Walk us through what that looks like.

Philip: Well, you know that there's an established business when they actually have a catchy title like “disinformation as a service,” which feels like something SPECTRE would have come up with for a James Bond movie.

But there are specialists in the market who will publish articles on the dubious websites and push them to reputable news outlets. They manage and maintain authentic-looking social media accounts in bulk. They use new as well as established social media accounts to promulgate disinformation. And these campaigns are asymmetric in nature, and inexpensive for the criminals to create and distribute at scale.

They are professionals. Interestingly, they even publish price lists on the dark web, and they charge their clients from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars to undertake these campaigns in highly customisable packages.

Kristin: Philip, that is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that the criminal network that's behind some of the things we read about in the news every day are as organized as what you described.

Certainly changes my perspective about the significance of the threat facing companies today. Out of curiosity, what does a disinformation package cost these days?

Philip: Well, I don’t want to be in the business of advertising for criminals, but for the reasonable price of $15 to $45, they will create a 1,000-character article. For 65 bucks, they will contact a media source directly to spread material. For a hundred bucks, 10 comments to post on a given article or news story. $350 to $550 per month for social media marketing. And $1,500 for search engine optimisation services to promote social media posts and articles over a 10- to 15-day period.

As you can tell, these are professionals who are out there to do this on a regular and repeatable basis for their clients.

Kristin: That really makes me think that this is really simply one additional or new flavor of fraud. How is disinformation different from fraud?

Philip: Well, on the surface, disinformation may resemble other types of fraud, public relation crises or cyber attacks, as all share some common features. But they differ in a number of aspects.

Let's think about a few of them. Amplification via super-spreaders is one of the distinctive qualities of disinformation. Social media platforms allow targeted content to be rapidly disseminated, and it can take on new and unpredictable dimensions as it does.

Strangely, falsehoods spread faster and deeper than true information, according to a 2019 MIT study. False news reports are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true news stories, and they reach the first 1,500 people six times faster.

This effect is particularly pronounced with political stories. Bots spread true and false information at the same rates, indicating that it's individuals that have a pawn shop for amping false information.

And I think that that is a particularly fascinating set of facts that really explains some of the crisis that our country [US] is facing.

One area that really differs is the nature of the technology that's being used. For example, deepfakes have become highly problematic, and you can no longer trust what you see or hear. There are AI tools now that can produce exceptionally convincing videos that would make you think that somebody has done something, or said something, which they never did. That can really undermine trust.

Kristin: So, I can't help but think, Philip, that disinformation really is the next generation of fraud. And interestingly, unlike the old generation that we would find through reading emails or texts on a company's systems, this plays out in the public domain — and in a way that can cause much greater damage to a company's brand than the other more traditional types.

So, tell me, what is the state of regulation? We know that it often takes time for regulators to catch up with emerging trends in the business community. What is going on there?

Philip: There is little to help companies at the moment, unfortunately. For example, there's no regulation related to the creation and distribution of deepfakes, and we should expect newer and even more effective tools and techniques will continue to emerge as a result.

I think that this is an area that Congress needs to focus on, both from a public trust standpoint, but also this would be helpful to corporations to have something in place that would allow them to respond to attacks on their organization.

Kristin: So, Philip, who would you say is most vulnerable in the corporate world to the threat of disinformation?

Philip: Well, disinformation can affect any company. But companies can think about whether they are particularly at risk, and here are a few areas that I can think of:

For example, a celebrity CEO who could be targeted by hacks to their social media account. If you're a company that's vocal about its stance on controversial issues, you'll be a target.

If you're a business making a public transactional deal, for example, launching an IPO, rebranding or reorganizing, you could be a target. If you're a new company experiencing a surge in demand for a particular product or service.

It's a few examples of the types of situations that might cause a disinformation campaign to be launched against you. But it's something that I think pretty much every company needs to be mindful about these days.

Kristin: Philip, that's an ideal place to wrap today's conversation. Thank you so much for joining me.

In our next episode, we'll explore ways that companies can combat the risk of disinformation.

In the meantime, remember to subscribe to our podcast series Emerge stronger through disruption, wherever you get your podcasts.

And don't forget to connect with Philip and me on LinkedIn. Until next time, thanks for listening.

Required fields are marked with an asterisk(*)

By submitting your email address, you acknowledge that you have read the Privacy Statement and that you consent to our processing data in accordance with the Privacy Statement (including international transfers). If you change your mind at any time about wishing to receive the information from us, you can send us an email message using the Contact Us page.

Contact us

Dave Stainback

Dave Stainback

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United States

Tel: +1 678 419 1355

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7483 422701