Why Hijacked Search Results Makes Social Media Riskier for Business

NEWS ANALYSIS: As investigators ranging from Facebook to the Senate Intelligence Committee look into Russian efforts to use the internet to influence U.S. public opinion, social media is revealed as an ideological battleground with significant risk for business.

Terror on Social Media

On July 31, 2018, Facebook announced that the social network was removing 32-pages of bogus accounts for what the company called “inauthentic behavior.” Facebook gave a detailed explanation regarding the accounts it removed and noted that the behavior was similar to actions carried out by Russia’s Internet Research Agency before the 2016 election. 

The next day, on August 1, 2018, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on Russian influence in social media focusing on attempts to influence U.S. elections. Committee vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va) said that their investigations are developing some important information. 

“Russian information warfare in the 2016 election has helped to reveal the dark underbelly of social media,” said Warner in a prepared statement. “The same tools that so successfully spread disinformation in 2016 can be used to negatively affect our lives in countless ways.”

Warner said that the information developed by the committee investigation was providing the tools to pressure social media companies to help deal with the threat. But, “as we heard today, they still have a lot of work to do.  I hope the leadership from Google, Facebook, and Twitter will take this seriously and come prepared with ideas for how they will better protect our democratic processes moving forward.” 

Meanwhile, NBC News reported on the same day that a conspiracy theory group, QAnon, was hijacking search results for high-profile videos on YouTube to promote links to conspiracy theory videos and pages. Initially, the hijacking attempts were aimed at celebrities, but has since morphed into hijacking attempts at more broadly based searches. 

These problems are made worse because of limited efforts on the part of the social media companies to help solve the problem, as noted by the Senate committee. While Facebook has eliminated 32 accounts, for example, this is only scratching the surface. 

This affects your organization if you use social media for anything from corporate communications, product demonstrations to customer outreach. First, there’s the question of reliability. Can your customers or partners be confident that they’re getting accurate information on social media? 

Next there’s the question of quality assurance. Are you confident that the information you’ve posted on social media will consistently represent your views? 

Finally are you confident that your customers and partners will actually find your postings or are they actually being lead to the postings of someone who has hijacked the search process? 

These possibilities mean that you may want to reevaluate your social media use, understanding that while it can be an effective marketing tool for you, it can also be used against you. 

For example, internet discussion groups regarding your product or service can easily provide false information that’s difficult to remove. This is already evident when unhappy customers post unfavorable information. It’s one thing if your product didn’t perform, but it’s another if the faults mentioned aren’t real or if the problems are simply imagined or even written by competitors. 

The same thing can happen on social media where postings that are simply wrong are bolstered by those that are malicious. In addition, malicious actors can also create personas that closely resemble yours, or they can log on as you and take over your social media account. This seems to happen on Twitter with depressing regularity lately. 

And then there’s the hijacking. Do you really want the search for your hot new product to be sent to a video falsely claiming, for example, that a celebrity is a pedophile? I didn’t think so. 

Fortunately, there are things you can do. 

First, evaluate your use of social media. Is there information about your organization that’s too important to trust to what has now become a battle ground of political groups pressuring each other? It may be that your social media pages are fine for announcements and some kinds of customer engagement, but that others, such as product videos, are better kept at home. 

Second, if you’re paying for the social media access, confirm that your account manager will have the support of managers at the social media company when requesting that they will take immediate action to correct problems. You may want to insist on an SLA. 

Third, you need to monitor all aspects of your social media presence constantly. You need to read comments, correct bogus information, get incorrect information removed and you need to constantly check the search function at the social media site to make sure your posts are being shown, and that search results that are destructive to your company are fixed. 

As the social media networks become an ideological battleground with the approach of the 2018 mid-term U.S. elections, you may find that it’s better for your company to remove any affiliation with them. 

What’s worse is that the credibility of the social networks are already diminishing, which is one reason why growth in Facebook and Twitter has stalled, causing their stock prices to drop significantly. 

I don’t think that signals the end of social media, but it does indicate that there may be better ways for your organization to interact with the public, business partners and customers. As long as social media sites are controlled by companies that have little incentive to support you rather than to collect clicks, it’s a risky place to be.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...