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2019年11月26日

《財富》雜志仔細研究了相關網文,發現它們都是以傳統新聞文章的格式撰寫的,沒有任何跡象表明它們是出自俄羅斯宣傳人員的手筆。

傳說在2016年的美國總統大選中,俄羅斯人利用兩樣“神技”——假新聞和社交媒體宣傳,深度干預了美國的選舉政治。現在,據說俄羅斯人把這項業務擴展到了私營部門。企業只需要支付少量費用,就可以雇佣俄羅斯特工給自己當水軍,或者替他們抹黑競爭對手。

為了證實這一點,美國馬薩諸塞州有一家名叫Recorded Future的公司親自做了一個試驗。它成立了一家虛假的英國公司,然後雇佣兩家俄羅斯公關公司代表它發動信息戰。其中一家公司的任務,是通過生成貌似合法的軟文,對該公司進行推廣。另一家公司的任務,則是用同樣的手段摧毀這家公司的聲譽。

根據Recorded Future公司向《財富》雜志分享的數據,這兩家公司成功發表了四篇文章,其中一篇文章出現在了一家擁有近百年歷史的報紙上。這幾篇水軍軟文現在仍然能夠在網上找到。

這兩家俄羅斯公關公司的服務範圍令人相當吃驚。他們不僅在Facebook和領英(LinkedIn)上創建了假賬戶,甚至還能夠在英文媒體上植入新聞報道。

根據《財富》雜志看到的一份報價表顯示,在CheapAutoInsurance.com這種網站上發一篇軟文,收費180美元;在北愛爾蘭的《Love Belfast》這種地區性新聞出版物上發一篇文章,需要600美元。但它還不止于此。只要你給得起錢,一些知名新聞媒體也能安排︰

路透社︰8,360美元

Wallpaper*:8,404美元

Mashable︰13,370美元

《金融時報》︰49,440美元

由于Recorded Future公司只打算測試一下這些假新聞服務公司是否能夠“收錢辦事”,所以它只要求這兩家俄羅斯公關公司將軟文植入到級別比較低的媒體中。Recorded Future公司不要求《財富》雜志不得透露相關出版物的名字,以免暴露與這兩家俄羅斯公司接觸的臥底分析師的身份。

《財富》雜志仔細研究了這些植入軟文,發現它們都是以傳統新聞文章的格式撰寫的,沒有任何跡象表明它們是出自俄羅斯宣傳人員的手筆。其中有一篇文章並非記實性的新聞報道,而是屬于“贊助性”文章,這表明它是通過該出版物的招商人員放進刊物里的。

目前,我們還不清楚這些公關公司到底如何植入了這些文章。據Recorded Future公司的分析主管羅曼?薩尼科夫介紹,這些俄羅斯公關公司雇佣了記者、編輯、翻譯、搜索引擎優化專家以及黑客等形形色色的人員為其服務。通過與這些公關公司的交流,薩尼科夫相信,他們是通過向腐敗記者或撰稿人付錢,來實現軟文的植入的。

Recorded Future公司還表示,它的臥底分析師是在所謂的“暗網”的非法營銷網站上發現這些公關公司的。

薩尼科夫還表示,至于這兩家俄羅斯公關公司是否真的可以在一些國際知名媒體上植入軟文,Recorded Future公司並沒有證據能夠證明。這兩家俄羅斯公司宣稱他們確實有這個能力,不過為了給客戶保密,他們拒絕向Recorded Future的代表出示相關證據。

路透社在發給《財富》雜志的一份聲明中表示,路透社已經采取了嚴格措施,確保其報道不存在虛假信息。《Wallpaper*》也發表聲明稱,它沒有理由相信俄羅斯公司在它的出版物中植入了內容,並表示它正在就此事尋求法律指導。Mashable和《金融時報》則沒有回應《財富》雜志的詢問。

即使這些俄羅斯公司只能滲透進一些知名度較低的出版物,但是只要有企業被他們盯上,後果還是相當嚴重的。不少讀者主要依賴地區性的媒體獲取信息,他們根本想不到這些地區小報也會像全國性媒體一樣,成為不法分子利用的目標。

而社交媒體的使用,又進一步放大了虛假信息的威脅。這兩家俄羅斯公司都使用了Facebook和另一個熱門社交媒體的賬戶來分享假新聞,有的賬戶還積累了幾百上千個粉絲。還有一家公司使用了領英來分享假新聞。

Recorded Future公司表示,這兩家俄羅斯公關公司還提出,他們可以將服務擴展到包括Instagram和TripAdvisor在內的其他社交媒體平台上。

領英在一份聲明中表示,公司嚴格執行禁止虛假賬戶和欺詐活動的政策。TripAdvisor公司也表示,他們也采取了類似的政策,而且他們很清楚,這種宣傳活動“絕大部分來自俄羅斯”。Instagram的東家Facebook則並未回復我們的置評請求。

盡管在2016年美國總統大選後,各大社交媒體公司紛紛采取措施,使普通人更加難以創建虛假賬戶網絡,但是薩尼科夫表示,像這兩家俄羅斯公司雇佣的職業黑客,還是能夠繞過社交媒體公司的控制。

這兩家俄羅斯公關公司的手段(我們可以稱之為“虛假信息即服務”)並不僅僅局限于媒體宣傳。其中一家公司還編造了這家不存在的公司虐待員工的故事,該公司還向Recorded Future表示,他們甚至可以向執法部門和稅務部門提出虛假指控。(不過Recorded Future公司沒有接受他們的建議。)

Recorded Future公司委托兩家俄羅斯公關公司搞的這次虛假宣傳,總共只花了6,050美元。這個數字對于那些想打擊競爭對手的餐館、零售商店等小企業來說是完全負擔得起的。

薩尼科夫還表示,這兩家俄羅斯公司的代表很善于溝通,注重以客戶為中心,這一點和其他合法的公關公司沒有什麼不同。

薩尼科夫指出︰“如果你有一個競爭對手,而且你想搞垮它,10年前的時候,你可能會雇個人搞掉它的網站。而現在,你可以雇這些公司發表它的負面評價,或者是在媒體上發表文章抹黑它。”

Recorded Future公司于9月26日發表了一篇名為《影響力的代價︰私營部門的虛假信息》的報告,其中披露了關于這次虛假宣傳試驗的更多細節。

一個“變異和擴散”的問題

當然,在傳統的公關手段中,通過媒體平台相互攻訐,也是屢見不鮮的事。比如《華爾街日報》在9月末報道稱,最近的一場反對亞馬遜的所謂“草根運動”,實際上就是由亞馬遜的競爭對手沃爾瑪與甲骨文發起和資助的。

但這些俄羅斯公關公司的服務卻不能同等視之,因為他們公然漠視了媒體道德。(既然輿論可以捏造,何必還要去去引導輿論?)任何人只要銀行賬戶里還有幾千美元,都可以去找他們,炮制一次虛假宣傳。另一方面,谷歌、Facebook、推特等社交媒體公司早就被“假新聞”事件搞得焦頭爛額,美國國會已經要求他們解釋其在防止社交媒體“武器化”問題上采取了哪些措施。而這些俄羅斯公司的做法則又給他們帶來了新的挑戰。

紐約大學的法學教授保羅?巴雷特最近發表了一篇報告,詳細說明了以盈利為目的的虛假宣傳服務的危害,並敦促科技公司加大對平台的監管力度。這篇報告近來也被廣泛引用。

巴雷特對《財富》雜志表示︰“困難在于,這些威脅正在變異和擴散。我的感覺是,這些科技公司也在努力保護它們的用戶,但這些新威脅即便對于像Facebook這樣擁有雄厚技術實力的公司,都是一種挑戰。”

虛假宣傳服務已經成了一個越來越嚴重的問題。據《連線》雜志今年6月報道,科技孵化器Jigsaw(它也是谷歌母公司Alphabet旗下的一個部門)曾經雇佣了一支俄羅斯水軍,讓他們去攻擊該公司虛構出來的一個民主活動團體。這個活動旨在研究政府資助的虛假宣傳活動的影響,整個活動是在推特上進行的,最終Jigsaw公司一共只花了250美元。

在此三個月前,Facebook宣布將清除數百個原屬于以色列阿基米德集團的虛假賬戶。這家公司就是以盈利性為目的,通過虛假宣傳,影響非洲、南美、東南亞等幾十個國家的政治情緒。9月末,牛津大學的研究人員指出,在過去兩年中,進行過虛假政治宣傳的國家的數量翻了一番,達到70多個。

薩尼科夫表示,具有諷刺意味的是,Recorded Future公司雇佣的這兩家俄羅斯公關公司,貌似充分利用了俄羅斯人在2016年美國大選期間建立起來的“知名度”,來為他們的商業行為開拓市場。他表示,雖然這些年來,這些公司也在俄羅斯提供類似服務,但美國大選給他們的帶來的“名聲”卻也啟發了他們︰為什麼不去西方開拓新的市場呢?

Recorded Future公司的首席執行官克里斯托弗?阿爾伯格表示,目前看來,這些虛假宣傳公司已經具有了損害私營企業或個人利益的潛力,這一點尤為值得關注。“我們不能低估這些威脅的潛在影響。”(財富中文網)

譯者︰樸成奎

The staples of Russian misinformation campaigns—fake news and social media propaganda—are turning up in a new place: the private sector. For a small fee, companies can pay Russian operatives to boost their image or smear their competitors, employing some of the same tactics used by the Kremlin to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

To prove it, a young cyber-security company in Massachusetts called Recorded Future created a fake U.K. company, then hired two Russian public relations firms to wage information warfare on the company’s behalf. One firm was tasked with promoting the company through the generation of seemingly legitimate news articles; another was ordered to tear down its reputation in the same manner.

The firms successfully placed a total of four articles, including one that appeared in a newspaper that has been published for nearly a century, according to evidence that Recorded Future shared with Fortune. The disinformation campaigns can still be found online.

The range of services offered by the Russian PR firms is startling. Not only do the firms deploy fake accounts on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, but they offer a service to plant news articles in English-language media outlets.

According to a rate card reviewed by Fortune, fees begin at $180 to plant an article on a website such as CheapAutoInsurance.com and rise to $600 to plant an article in a regional news publication like Northern Ireland's Love Belfast. But it doesn’t stop there. Well-known, prestigious journalism outlets also feature on the list, with hefty prices to match:

Reuters: $8,360

Wallpaper*: $8,404

Mashable: $13,370

Financial Times: $49,440

Since Recorded Future intended only to test the efficacy of the fake news service, it paid the two Russian PR firms to plant articles about its fictitious company in lower-tier publications. Recorded Future asked Fortune not to name the compromised publications in order to avoid compromising the identity of its undercover analysts who engaged the Russian firms.

Fortune, however, reviewed the planted articles and found that all were written in the manner of conventional news articles and contain no hints that they were published on behalf of Russian propagandists. In one case, the planted article was not journalistic but “sponsored,” suggesting the firm placed the story through the publication's commercial staff.

It is not clear how the PR firms actually planted the articles. According to Roman Sannikov, director of analysts at Recorded Future, the Russian firms employ journalists, editors, translators, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, and hackers. Based on conversations with the firms, he believes they pay corrupt journalists or writers to place the stories.

Recorded Future says its undercover analysts discovered the firms on criminal marketing sites on the so-called dark web.

Recorded Future did not obtain evidence that the Russian PR firms are actually able to infiltrate the pricier publications listed on the rate card. The PR firms claim they possess this capability but refused to provide proof to Recorded Future’s agents, citing client confidentiality, says Sannikov.

In a statement to Fortune, Reuters said it has stringent practices in place to ensure its coverage is free of misinformation. Wallpaper* stated it has no reason to believe the Russian firms have planted content with the publication, and that it is seeking legal counsel on the matter. Mashable and the Financial Times did not respond to Fortune inquiry.

Even if the Russian firms are only able to penetrate lesser-known publications, the effect on companies targeted by fake articles could be significant. Many readers rely on regional news outlets for information and wouldn’t expect them to be targeted by malicious actors as aggressively as a national news outlet.

The disinformation threat is amplified by the use of social media. Both propaganda campaigns purchased by Recorded Future involved the use of accounts on Facebook and another popular social network, some with hundreds of followers, to share the commissioned fake stories. One campaign also shared the stories on LinkedIn.

Recorded Future says the Russian PR firms also offered to extend the campaigns to other social media platforms, including Instagram and TripAdvisor.

In a statement, LinkedIn said it enforces its policies that ban fake accounts and fraudulent activities. TripAdvisor said that it takes similar actions, and that it is well aware such propaganda activity is “disproportionately coming out of Russia.” Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not respond to requests for comment.

While social media companies have made it much harder for average people to create networks of fake accounts in the wake of the 2016 election, Sannikov says professional hackers like those employed at the Russian PR companies are able to circumvent the companies’ controls.

The Russian PR firms’ tactics—call it “disinformation as a service”—are not limited to media propaganda. One of the firms hired by Recorded Future, which spread stories that the fictitious company had mistreated its employees, offered a further service for filing false accusations with law enforcement and tax authorities. (Recorded Future declined to engage it.)

The total cost of the misinformation campaigns that Recorded Future engaged with amounted to just $6,050, a figure well within reach of small businesses like restaurants or retail stores looking to harm their competitors.

According to Sannikov, the Russian firms’ representatives are communicative and customer-focused, not unlike those of a legitimate PR agency.

“If you have a competitor down the block and you want to damage them, 10 years ago you hired someone to knock their website offline. Now, these services can post negative reviews and write articles in media about them,” says Sannikov, adding that both campaigns took only weeks to carry out.

The company on September 26 published a report titled “The Price of Influence: Disinformation in the Private Sector” that provides more details about its campaign.

A Problem That Is “Morphing and Proliferating”

Companies spreading dirt about each other in the media is hardly a new tactic in the world of conventional public relations, of course. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported at the end of September that a recent grassroots campaign to oppose Amazon was funded and run by rivals Wal-Mart and Oracle.

But the Russian PR firms’ services are set apart by their blatant disregard for media ethics. (Why shape public opinion when you can fabricate it?) Their ready access to anyone with a few thousand dollars in their bank account could present a new challenge to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, from which Congress has already demanded explanation for what they are doing to address the “weaponization” of social networks.

Paul Barrett, a New York University law professor who recently published a widely-cited report urging technology companies to do more to police their platforms, describes for-profit disinformation services as troubling.

“The difficulty is these threats are morphing and proliferating,” Barrett tells Fortune. “My impression is that the tech companies are trying in good faith to protect their users, but the new threats are challenging even for someone with Facebook’s technological prowess.”

Disinformation services appear to be a growing problem. In June, Wired magazine reported how tech incubator Jigsaw—a division of Google parent company Alphabet—purchased a Russian troll-for-hire campaign to harass a fictitious pro-democracy activist group it had created. The campaign, which took place on Twitter and was part of broader research into state-sponsored disinformation, cost only $250.

Three months before that, Facebook announced it would purge hundreds of fake accounts belonging to an Israeli company called the Archimedes Group. The group ran disinformation-for-profit campaigns that sought to affect political sentiment in dozens of countries in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. And at the end of September, Oxford University researchers reported that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns had doubled in the last two years to more than 70.

Ironically, says Sannikov, the Russian PR firms contracted by Recorded Future appear to have leveraged the enormous publicity surrounding the Kremlin’s 2016 disinformation campaigns in order to build out for-profit ventures. While the firms have offered similar services in Russia for years, he says, the publicity surrounding the U.S. election inspired them to expand to new markets in the West.

That such efforts now have the potential to harm private businesses or individuals is of particular concern, says Christopher Ahlberg, Recorded Future’s chief executive: “The perceived impact of these threats cannot be understated.”

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