Disinformation is nearly as ancient as war itself, and much like the history of war, the history of disinformation is a tale of innovation and adaptation. The current times represent an intriguing chapter in this story as the tactics and technologies used for disinformation continue to evolve and expand. One such tactic, and the focus of this article, is the use of influencers for distributing disinformation.
The use of social media influencers by propagandists reflects a wider trend observed in recent disinformation operations. Rather than relying on inorganic tools and strategies, like social media bot accounts, actors are switching to semi-organic methods. In other words, actors are shifting towards the use of real people or people-owned sites or accounts for spreading disinformation. This shift is not to say that both accounts no longer play a pivotal role in disinformation campaigns, in the case of automated propaganda they do. However, the development of inorganic traffic detection algorithms across social media platforms means that they are becoming easier to detect. Consequentially, propagandists have recognized the need for a human operator to some extent in their activities to avoid detection. In some cases, this might be the use of periodic human activity on fake accounts or a programmed bot to deliver content to disseminators for further spreading. Although, it can be taken a step further by removing the fake accounts altogether and using influencers under their legitimate identities.
In addition to the above point, several reasons explain why influencers are becoming utilized more by propagandists, but let’s take a look at their value for disinformation operations in finer detail. On a broad scale, influencers possess powerful networks of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions of followers, which they work to maintain by pushing appealing content. They create engagement, drive conversations, and/or sell products and when done right they gain the attention of potential customers or followers, generate word of mouth, and most importantly, establish a rapport for themself. While the highly popular, adorned by millions, influencers have a large reach, so-called nano-influencers are equally as valuable for disinformation operations. Nano-influencers possess less than ten thousand followers, but what is lost in reach is made up for by their potential to deliver a particularly potent localized effect. Beyond this, while mega-influencers have reach, nano-influencers are better at generating trust and engagement from their users. Therefore, the use of actors to spread disinformation gives propagandists the illusion of authenticity within online communities. Furthermore, it makes it more difficult to trace the activities back to the propagandist behind the campaign.
Moving away from the theory side of this trend, let’s look at the used cases of influencers within disinformation operations. In a recent exposure, political parties in Nigeria were discovered to have been paying social media influencers to spread disinformation about their opposition before the general election in February of this year. Influencers were paid £37,000 to share fake political posts or, in some cases, were given gifts in return for their support. Most interesting was the case of influencers sharing posts and photos that associated Kashim Shettima, the All-Progressives Congress Party’s vice-presidential candite with Boko Haram. This false narrative was spread on Twitter before moving onto other platforms like WhatsApp and others. However, when the photo which allegedly associates the two is reverse-image-searched, no affiliation to Boko Haram is found, the photo taken was from a meeting Shettima had with nomads.
In other cases, like one observed in China – a state renowned for its covert and overt information campaigns – ethnic minority influencers are used on platforms like YouTube to promote whitewashed images of the regions they come from. Dubbed ‘Frontier Influencers,’ these mostly young and female influencers present the lives of ethnic minorities including the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Manchu in China in a manner approved by the CCP. This is particularly useful for combating criticism from foreign governments and NGOs about the CCP’s treatment of these minorities. A more in-depth analysis of this strategy can be found in ASPI’s policy brief on the subject.
In conclusion, the use of influencers in disinformation campaigns is a growing trend due to the value they bring in terms of reach, trust, and engagement. This tactic reflects a wider shift in disinformation activities towards semi-organic strategies where propagandists are utilizing real people or real people-owned sites or accounts for spreading disinformation. Much like the other methods and techniques used by propagandists, this development is difficult to halt. Especially when factors including the lack of regulation on social media, difficulties in identifying influencers involved, and the speed at which information spreads across platforms are considered. Nonetheless, efforts must be made to combat this problem through a multi-stakeholder approach involving the government, social media platforms, civil society, and individuals.