The internet has transformed the way the world does business. In just three decades, it has given organizations of every size easy access to a global marketplace, streamlined internal and external communication, and taken consumer engagement to a new level.
The concept of a World Wide Web, envisioned by British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, is brilliant. Like many advancements designed with noble purposes in mind, though, the internet has also been used as a tool to create large-scale harm to businesses worldwide.
One of the greatest threats to your brand lurks in its depths. This is where instigators—trolls, harassers, activists, and sophisticated bad actors—take refuge in their hideouts to plot and plan how they’re going to release and amplify misleading harmful content about brands with the sole intent of taking them down.
Concealed in hacker forums, chat channels, messaging apps, and social media pages, these individuals, extremists, and domestic terror threats, such as QAnon, target high-profile companies and executives, looking for ways to damage brand reputations.
If your brand takes a stance publicly on socially- and politically-charged issues, your enterprise is exposed to reputational and financial risks that originate in the shadows of the Deep Web.
WHAT AND WHERE IS THE DEEP WEB?
Think of the internet as a vast ocean. At the top is the Surface Web where most of the activity occurs, with users happily surfing through social media channels, review sites, news sites, blogs, and online marketplaces such as Amazon. Even with 5.4 billion pages, the Surface Web accounts for only about 4% of internet content. This content can be easily accessed by common search engines such as Google and browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Below the Surface Web is the Deep Web, which is obscured from easy view, but occupies 96% of the internet ocean, from just below the surface to the bottom. Common search engines won’t find what’s on the Deep Web, which includes information such as your personal email account, medical records, social media details, online banking accounts, confidential corporate web pages, or an organization’s private database.
Because it prevents public access to this data and protects our privacy, the Deep Web is essential for everyday life on the internet. While the Deep Web hosts some innocuous activities, ranging from international backgammon tournaments to fan clubs and karaoke competitions, it’s also home to illicit activities such as instructions to circumvent paywalls and conspiracy theorist groups.
The Mariana Trench of the Deep Web is the Dark Web. At just 0.01% of all Deep Web content, this pitch black region attracts buyers and sellers of contraband, customer information from data breaches, and more. The Dark Web is infamous for underground marketplaces such as Silk Road, AlphaBay, Wall Street Market, and Valhalla selling illegal weapons and hard drugs.
CERTAIN RISKS TO YOUR BRAND GET THEIR START ON THE DEEP WEB
While the Dark Web is a scary place, not to be ignored, the real threats to brands begin on the Deep Web. This is where instigators use it to mask their identity, location, IP address, and more.
These bad actors with an eye toward inflicting harm on a brand are obscured from plain view and extremely difficult to find. Their collusion is intentionally hidden and cannot be detected without shrewd and knowledgeable sleuthing of experts specializing in signals intelligence, AI, human intelligence, psychology, and law and regulation.
The Deep Web is known as a refuge where instigators and sympathizers perpetuate conspiracy theories and fabricate disinformation campaigns. A recent high-profile example is thehijacking of the #SaveTheChildren hashtag by QAnon. Although it appeared to support a noble cause, the hashtag was used to direct people to QAnon’s baseless theories about child sex trafficking and the so-called deep state.
This shows how easy it is for an instigator to co-opt your brand-specific or cause-related campaign. Subtle attacks like this can quickly gain momentum because people who share them on social media simply don’t know that the hashtag is tied to a conspiracy theory or disinformation.
Followers of QAnon use highly organized strategies to grow their audience, said Kate Starbird, associate professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington, who has researched the movement. One common technique to boost content is a “hashtag rally,” where a group of online accounts all tweet the same hashtag at the same time.
When you lose control of your hashtag, you quickly lose control of the conversation as influencers amplify the harmful content. Before you know it, your brand reputation is at risk.
QAnon isn’t the only potential threat to brands. Russia’s shadowy internet Research Agency, which posts on Deep Web forums, spread disinformation through trolls about people getting severe food poisoning from Walmart Thanksgiving turkeys. Quickly dismissed as a hoax, it could have caused severe reputational and financial damage to the big box retailer.
With branded social media accounts and credentials available for purchase on the Deep Web, company executives are also at risk. In July 2020, for instance,a Twitter exploit exposed serious security risks for some of the platform’s most influential users, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Michael Bloomberg, and Apple VIPs.
FIND THE DANGER BEFORE THE DANGER FINDS YOUR BRAND
Though it’s challenging to anticipate what you can’t see, you’re expected to get ahead of problems before they become a crisis. Unfortunately, with nearly 550 billion individual documents compared to the one billion of the Surface Web, finding a threat is like looking for a thimble in the ocean.
When the seeds of a disinformation campaign intended to harm your brand are planted on the Deep Web, you need to know who the instigators are, where they are hiding, and how to stop them before the harmful content reaches the Surface Web and triggers reputational, corporate, and security risk.
Managing these risks effectively takes a coordinated effort between an experienced early-warning risk intelligence partner and your enterprise to stay ahead of the instigators. You need an agile strategy for continuously monitoring the Deep Web that keeps up with the growing sophistication of malicious individuals and evolving online threats by observing them in real-time.
In other words, now that you know there are huge sharks down there that want to take a piece out of your brand, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.