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War of the words: How cybercriminals are selling fake news through the underground

Wed, 14th Jun 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

"Fake news" is a term that has snuck up on us - mainly since the furore and misinformation spread throughout the US elections.

Whether it's from companies trying to promote their own brands or for more nefarious purposes, Trend Micro thinks that it's a dangerous weapon for manipulation and cyber propaganda.

The company published a research report titled ‘The Fake News Machine: How Propagandists Abuse the Internet and Manipulate the Public', that looks in detail about how the underground makes and sells fake news, and the tools they use to do it.

According to Trend Micro, fake news is fueled by social networks, motivations and online services. Cybercriminal gangs have caught on to how popular fake news is - especially across social media where messages can rapidly spread.

Now criminals are offering Fake News as a Service (FNaaS), attracting buyers who want to promote any messages that supports these objectives. These 'services' are available throughout the English-speaking markets, China, the Middle East and Russia.

FNaaS mirrors genuine content marketing practices. It includes content creation, distribution, moderation or outright content deletion if needed.

What kinds of things are criminals trying to sell through the underground? Here's a taste.

  • Create a celebrity with 300,000 followers in a month for $2600
  • Help investigate a street protest for $200,000
  • Discredit a journalist for $55,000
  • Manipulate a decisive court of action for $400,000

As you may have guessed from those offers, stats from the report say that the underground is motivated not only by political interests, but also financial gains.

"It's no big stretch of the imagination to think that fake news could be used to influence stock prices. This is particularly true for stocks with low prices and those that are infrequently traded, which makes their price easier to manipulate. For more established companies, a campaign could lower the image and reputation of a target company, affecting their earnings and stock price," the report says.

Criminals are also using crowdfunding, crowdsourcing to manipulate public opinion, conducting polls and competitions on social media and other online platforms.

While it does say that social networks are taking actions such as fact checking, account suspension and better guidelines around tweet automation, it's also up to readers to ignore fake news.

"Monetary outcomes of fake news come both from advertising and the reaction – like fake news supporting donations to a cause," Trend Micro says in a statement.

Here's what to watch out for:

  • Hyperbolic and clickbait headlines
  • Suspicious website domains that spoof legitimate news media
  • Misspellings in content and awkwardly laid out website
  • Doctored photos and images
  • Absence of publishing timestamps
  • Lack of author, sources, and data
  • Reading beyond the headline
  • Cross-checking the story with other media outlets if it is also reported elsewhere
  • Scrutinizing the links and sources the article uses to back up its story, and confirming those aren't spreading misinformation themselves
  • Researching the author, or where and when the content is published • Cross-referencing the content's images to see if they've been altered
  • Reviewing the comments, checking their profiles (if they're real or bots), and observing the timestamps between comments (i.e. see if a paragraph can be written and posted in a minute or less, or if previous comments were posted verbatim, etc.)
  • Reading the story thoroughly to see if it's not satire, a prank, or hoax
  • Consulting reputable fact checkers
  • Getting out of the “filter bubble” by reading news from a broader range of reputable sources; stories that don't align with your own beliefs don't necessarily mean they're fake  
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