As the head of media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, former political strategist Josh Ginsberg has spent most of the past seven years helping clients understand what people were saying about them in their businesses in traditional media outlets and on social media.
But then something weird happened. Earlier this year, Zignal’s data scientists started noticing “anomalies in our data” that didn’t make sense, Ginsberg said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher: People with murky identities whose posts got the engagement of mainstream influencers, and sudden spikes in activity around certain topics.
“We gave this data to our data science team, and they came back and they said, ‘Look, these are actually synthetic mentions, these are artificial, these are not real people,’” Ginsberg said. “So, we took a step back and we said, ‘Okay. Well, what’s what’s going on here?’ What we saw was there was massive amounts of bot activity that were impacting corporate brands, corporate reputations, it had an impact on market cap, all these other things.”
In other words, Zignal Labs believes that the same sort of coordinated disinformation campaigns that emerged during the 2016 campaign are now targeting publicly-traded corporations such as Nestlé, Harley-Davidson and AMD. As a result, every business has to be aware of this risk, Ginsberg said, and needs to rethink how it handles communications — lest it waste huge amounts of money and time on bot activity.
“To give you a sense of the magnitude, we literally have not found a company in the past six months that have not gotten hit with a major bot attack,” he said.
On the new podcast, Ginsberg gave several examples of how bots can sway conversations about everything from corporations’ viability to long-raging culture wars. In some cases, as with a recent barrage of tweets about nonexistent vulnerabilities AMD chips, the bots gin up conversation about something totally false.
But perhaps more interesting are the times when the bots respond to a real issue — such as Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett.
“More than 60 percent of that conversation was being amplified by bots,” Ginsberg said. “It seemed noisier than it was. It spun people up. The goal of a lot of these bot networks is not for it to just be bots. It is to bring humans into the conversation too ... to sow discord within the media landscape.”
And the individual or group or groups that were controlling those bots — when asked, Ginsberg suggested he didn’t know — weren’t just pushing one message.
“What you saw almost instantly were bot networks wake up and they started amplifying what Roseanne said,” he said. “What’s interesting was, it was kind of on both sides of the issue. There was one bot network or one side of the bot networks that we’re saying, ‘This is terrible of Roseanne,’ et cetera, et cetera. There was another side that was saying, ‘Hey, you’re being too hard on Roseanne. The liberals are getting too upset.’”
“You have both these things,” Ginsberg added. “What ended up happening was, real people then join the conversation, because they were outraged.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.