There is a term known as “newsjacking,” and it refers to the takeover of a news story or narrative and using it for other purposes.  See the example in that link about when Oreo took over the power outage during the Super Bowl 2013, and you’ll understand exactly why such a term was ever coined.  It’s typically seen as a positive term – the creative pairing of media savvy and perfect timing, resulting in a viral news success.

But there is a more sinister likeness to newsjacking that is increasingly employed today, especially given the advent of social media.  And this is a version that comes with a dark twist.

We see it in more primitive fashion when big stories break on social media: The trolls who post fake photos or fake reports of sharks swimming in the streets during a hurricane, or the Sandy Hook child who was (not) killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, or false reports of the NYSE being under three feet of water during Hurricane Sandy – the posts that trick mainstream media and leave them backtracking on their stories in the midst of the flurry.

And then there are those who craft their own narratives in a much more savvy way – some out of whole cloth, some mixed in with a little truth – and inject them into the news to achieve a particular gain, often a politically motivated one.

While not necessarily “newsjacking” in the pure sense of the term, this darker resemblance to it is also reminiscent of recent incidents of hacking and hijacking of news outlets’ social media accounts.

I’ve covered such incidents previously in a post entitled Hacking the News: Information Warfare in the Age of Twitter.  Rogue groups like the Syrian Electronic Army employ a combination of phishing and hacking skills with propaganda to forcefully inject their narrative into the media and into the consciousness of the news consuming public.  Some of the SEA’s tactics have had high profile consequences – in April, the SEA hijacked the Twitter account of the Associated Press and tweeted that there had been explosions at the White House, causing a temporary plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average.

The reality is, intentional deceptions for use in manipulating the news can be every bit as dangerous or damaging as when the news itself gets hacked or hijacked.  And it’s occurring with more frequency and ease these days.

Exposing the Racket

Recently a story was brought to my attention that brilliantly demonstrates the dangers of these dark twists on newsjacking.  The difference in this case though is that the author – a media critic – set out to prove the problem that exists by using it against the media and bloggers.  And it worked.

From BetaBeat:

It doesn’t take Noam Chomsky to see that the state of media is bad.

But in 2011, I had the sense that most people didn’t fully grasp the absurd lows the system was spiraling toward. So I set out to illustrate it.

And in the process surprised even myself.

[…]

It went like this: I would grossly exaggerate the size of my book advance in a press release and let the gossip mill take this number and run with it. I would encourage bloggers and reporters to speculate that it was a celebrity tell-all about high-profile clients of mine like Dov Charney and Tucker Max. In effect, I’d be using the media’s weakness for sensationalism to get them to expose their weakness for sensationalism (and give coverage to my indictment of them, something they’d otherwise be reluctant to do).

The author published an intentionally vague and misleading book announcement, and it was picked up by a publishing industry blog, which posted its own incorrect speculations based upon the announcement.

Then he followed up by sending an anonymous “tip” to the website Jezebel, and an email to Gawker.  In no time, both sites had published articles, further disseminating the false information.  After 40,000 page views on Gawker alone, still more blogs had regurgitated the information without bothering to vet it.

Surprisingly, there was but one exception.

Only one outlet actually bothered to do any research and get their hands on this book proposal, in which I, you know, explained exactly what I was doing, and had freely distributed all over town. That outlet was the New York Observer (at the time, we had no affiliation). But when the Observer made it obvious how embarrassingly wrong these blogs had been, did any of them bother to change their story?

Of course not!

While the author executed his stunt with a different motive in mind, it illustrates from an inside view just how easy it is for the news cycle to be manipulated or hijacked.

It’s a good article and I recommend reading it in its entirety, as I really don’t do it justice here with just a few short excerpts.

The Gasland Sequel: Hoaxing for Publicity

This post in Monday’s Free Beacon by Lachlan Markay about portions of the film Gasland Part II is a similar recent example of the problem.

Here’s the lowdown:

Environmentalist filmmaker Josh Fox presents a hoax perpetrated by a Texas activist designed to malign an innovative oil and gas extraction technique as sensational evidence of its catastrophic environmental impact.

Fox’s new film, Gasland Part II, features a powerful scene showing a Texas landowner lighting the contents of a garden hose on fire. The incident is presented as evidence of water contamination from a nearby hydraulic fracturing operation.

According to a Texas court, the scene was actually a hoax devised by a Texas environmental activist engaged in a prolonged battle with a local gas company to falsely inflate the supposed dangers of the oil and gas extraction technique, also known as fracking.

[…]

Texas’ 43rd Judicial District Court found in February 2012 that Steven Lipsky,  “under the advice or direction” of Texas environmental activist Alisa Rich, “intentionally attach[ed] a garden hose to a gas vent—not a water line” and lit its contents on fire.

“This demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning,” the court found in response to a defamation complaint brought by Range Resources, the company conducting hydraulic fracturing operations in the area, against Lipsky and his wife.

Given the success of the film’s predecessor, and its current application in some schools, it’s clear that its deceptive sequel has a high likelihood of dominating the news cycle as though it’s fact.

It’s also interesting to note that the film’s creator apparently took offense to being called out in Markay’s article.  He responded to our tweets with yet more material aimed at controlling the narrative rather than addressing factual inaccuracies.

My intent here isn’t to debate the issue of fracking, or whether or not there may be some truth to other issues portrayed in this film.  I point out the example of the specific scene mentioned in the film and a Texas court’s finding that the demonstration was deceitful because it illustrates how powerful propaganda and false portrayals can be in driving news coverage.

The Heartland Institute and FakeGate: When Fake News Controls the Narrative

You might also recall a more subtle example from 2012 involving Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick and the Heartland Institute in what became to be known as “FakeGate.”

In that instance, an individual assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and, in a creative feat of social engineering, persuaded a Heartland staff member to re-send materials to a new email address for a board meeting.  Those emails and documents were later mixed in with a fake document that was authored to make it appear that Heartland was developing a “K-12 climate-denier curriculum.”  The entire package was then anonymously mailed to journalists and climate experts.

The existence of authentic materials alongside the damaging fake document gave false legitimacy to the entire package.  The anonymous tip evolved into a blockbuster left-wing narrative about The Secret, Corporate-Funded Plan To Teach Children That Climate Change Is A Hoax – one that was regurgitated by other outlets and spawned a barrage of false news stories that ultimately caused damage to Heartland.

The Heartland Institute vigorously asserted that while some of the more mundane materials were authentic, others had been altered and the most damaging document in particular, the “climate-denier curriculum” document, was entirely confirmed a fake.

The identity of the person who obtained Heartland’s emails and sent the anonymous package to journalists and climate experts was later revealed to be water/climate scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, Peter Gleick, in his own confession.  Gleick denied authoring the fake document in the package, however.

The theft of emails, creation of a hoax, and the subsequent hijacking of a popular news topic by way of injecting the hoax into the news cycle left Heartland with its damages.

At least one of the legitimate documents revealed the identity of some of Heartland’s donors.  Heartland is an organization that presents a skeptical challenge to the man-made global warming debate, and its donors typically prefer to remain anonymous due to the nature of political attacks from the organization’s opponents.  The organization lost some of its donors over the fallout.

The entire incident was a wake-up call to many about how “fake” news can overtake a news cycle and create a viral narrative that’s difficult to stop – in this case, one that left a trail of damage in its wake.

Vigilance

So why am I writing an entire post on the topic and providing these examples?

I’ve been covering the topics of news hacking and information warfare for some time, and there are parallels between those issues and other varieties of manipulation of news and information.  When I observe how easy it is to take over a news cycle, I can’t help but be concerned about more nefarious applications and where things may go in the future.

There is legitimate concern about cyberattacks and hacking these days, and I think our country has placed a good deal of attention on this as a threat.  But little attention is placed on the issue of disinformation and manipulation of the news, when the reality is, it’s a more likely and just as dangerous threat.

Consider the polarized state of politics today, as well as conflicts across the globe.  And think about the current tensions between the US and some other countries. Now take the few examples in this post and imagine far more malicious scenarios.

Without a hyper-vigilant media, willing to do the hard work of fact checking and research, we could one day be facing something far more serious than trolls disseminating fake photos into the news cycle or environmentalists trying to control the narrative.

We saw one false tweet affect the Dow Jones industrial average.  Where does it go from there?