Discredit a journo? Easy, that'll be $55k. Fix an election? Oh, I can do that for just $400k

Cybercrooks rake it in with Fake-News-as-a-Service

Fake news has come to be associated with political intrigue but the same propaganda techniques are also abused by cybercriminals, according to a study by Trend Micro.

The techniques and methods used to spread fake news and manipulate public opinion have a wide range of objectives and even a price list.

Cybercriminals produce, market and monetise fake news in underground markets. The scope of a campaign and intended target affect pricing. For example, campaigns aimed to spark street protests are priced at $200,000 while discrediting a journalist would cost $55,000 and creating a fake celebrity (with 300,000 followers) costs a more modest $2,600.

A year-long campaign to influence election outcomes is available for just $400,000, the study says. Whether such listings are in themselves an attempt at disinformation is certainly debatable. US intel agencies, Western politicians and security firms are nigh-on unanimous that attempts to influence the US presidential election last year were the work of the Kremlin. For example, UK defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon recently said the Kremlin is "weaponising misinformation" as part of a sustained campaign that goes beyond alleged meddling in the presidential election.

Against that there have been freelance attempts to influence elections in parts of Latin America that allegedly featured hacking and other malfeasance so the idea that such services are up offered for sale on the dark net is far from implausible.

Trend Micro's 77-page report [PDF] breaks down the key steps used to influence public opinion: from reconnaissance of the target audience and weaponisation – preparation of the fake story – to delivery and exploitation via social media, on to follow-up attempts to sustain a false narrative through additional propaganda.

At the end of the cycle the public is often deliberately distracted with a new topic, beginning the cycle again. "With fake news becoming increasingly popular, people are questioning how much it has subliminally swayed their decisions or thoughts on campaigns such as elections," said Bharat Mistry, principal security strategist at Trend Micro. "This report takes a closer look at how the cybercrime ecosystem produces, markets and monetises fake news in underground markets. With the advent of Fake News as a Service ... it's never been easier to manipulate social media and other online platforms to affect and amplify [the] influence [of] public opinion."

The report reveals the numerous online underground sites offering fake news-style services – which in many ways is an extension of tried-and-tested black hat SEO, click fraud and bot traffic efforts. These sites offer anonymity for any person or organisation seeking to influence public opinion, potentially including nation states.

Fake news services typically involve the creation of fake social media profiles and groups; developing the fake content itself; driving likes and retweets for dissemination; and building legitimate-looking news sites. All these steps are designed to set up and sustain false narratives.

For an additional fee, multiple news sites can be purchased which cross reference each other to add more authenticity to the fake news campaign, the report reveals.

Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern and English underground marketplaces offer fake news services of one type or another. Regional differences exist.

For example, in China, fake advertorials can be purchased for as little as ¥100 (£11), while in Russia 35,000 rubles (£483) will buy your video two minutes on the YouTube homepage.

The report also details example of the dissemination of fake news, including the cynical abuse of the recent Manchester bombing attack. Mexican journalists were falsely listed in galleries as bombing victims in what’s thought to be an attack by a drug cartel. These fake victim pics were subsequently promoted through social media.

Trend Micro concludes that people can insulate themselves from fake news by cross-checking stories with major media outlets, researching the author and reading beyond the headline. "The hope is that by becoming aware of the techniques used in opinion manipulation, the public will become more resistant to these methods," Mistry concluded. ®

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