Fake-News Services Make Propaganda Distribution Point-and-Click

Security firm Trend Micro investigated several online fake news distribution services and released a report June 13 that tells how they work and provides guidance on counter measures.

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Cloud services that allow anyone to propagate fake news or propaganda, to gain a following for provocative posts and to harness crowds of willing humans to pass on phony content to more credulous people have multiplied over the past year, security firm Trend Micro stated in an 81-page analysis published on June 13.

The report, The Fake News Machine: How Propagandists Abuse the Internet and Manipulate the Public, found that fake news services could be easily used to create a celebrity profile, incite a street protest or discredit a journalist.

In many ways the services are similar to black-hat search engine optimization (SEO) services, or even legitimate marketing services, use many of the same techniques. But fake news services add anonymity and networks of fake users to click on content and thumbs-up posts.

“All of these services are designed to get a snowball rolling, and once it does, it starts to take a life of its own,” Mark Nunnikhoven, vice president of cloud research at Trend Micro, told eWEEK.

The rise of fake news was a major force in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The three months before the election, for example, the top-20 fake news stories were more popular than the top-20 legitimate news stories, according to a Nov. 2016 Buzzfeed analysis. The Trend Micro report documents several different fake-news schemes and the pricing for different services.

Trend Micro used a broad definition of fake news that focuses more on the mechanism and intent of spreading a particular piece of information than the veracity of that information.

“Fake news is the promotion and propagation of news articles via social media,” the company stated in the report. “These articles are promoted in such a way that they appear to be spread by other users, as opposed to being paid-for advertising. The news stories distributed are designed to influence or manipulate users’ opinions on a certain topic towards certain objectives.”

The delivery of fake news requires motivation, the use of social networks and an ecosystem of tools and services, the company stated.

Different regions have different markets for fake news. Chinese fake-news distributors, for example, mainly focus on the local market with prices ranging from approximately $75 to $200.

Russia’s fake news networks harness crowdsourcing platforms that rewards users who click and upvote content in exchange for points. For $266 (or 15,000 RUB), a customer can place an article in niche or dubious publication, and for less than $22,000, a customer could place an article in a reputable publication without it being marked as advertising, the report stated.

“The whole goal of a quality fake-news service is that it should be indistinguishable from organic social media and public opinion,” Nunnikhoven said. “Some of these are outright, we will get you fake votes… And others are not as blatantly fake or false, but more like shady marketing.”

Because few people read beyond the headline, fake news with a well-written headline can take off with minimal effort, Trend Micro added.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...