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We are in a disinformation war. Are you equipped to survive it?

Jonathan Nguyen
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Jonathan Nguyen
We are in a disinformation war. Are you equipped to survive it?
Artwork by Louise Pau and Simon Tyler

We're not in the midst of a "massive infodemic", we're in the midst of all-out disinformation war. Last week my colleague Adrienne, a scientist, politely quoted the euphemism from the World Health Organisation.

As a scientist, she is bound by a very heavy burden of proof, and many stakeholders. As a communications strategist (and sometimes provocateur), I respect that but often need to give advice and make judgement calls based on data AND hunches. If I wait for all the data, it's often too late.

Put simply, misinformation is unintentional, whilst disinformation is very much deliberate and usually the result of government action.

From afar it may be comical that some conspiracy theorists burnt down 5G towers but in reality, serious financial and actual bodily harm was incurred by telco operators and their engineers. Far from a laughing matter are the number of people who have died directly due to coronavirus or indirectly by ingesting chloroquine, drinking methanol, or simply not believing COVID exists.

And very clearly a state actor has been behind much of this and aggressively fanning the flames.

History tells us that once caught, they don’t just pack up and go home but they disperse and improve.

And their reach? Easily over 140 million users a month, how’s your media budget?

These might seem like geopolitical issues that no single CEO can solve, and to an extent that’s true, but do you think Vodafone’s response plan would have been different if they were prepared for this?

Biotech and health tech firms are at the forefront of innovation but this puts them at the front lines on two new battlefronts - cyber & information and whilst private companies can do little about a global information war, it’s irresponsible to not factor this into planning. I mean, would you set up shop in a war zone and not take precautions?

Whilst there are poignant considerations for the CISO and public policy wonks, don’t underestimate what’s required from a brand planning standpoint. Time needs to be dedicated to thinking about how deeply scientific innovations can be railroaded by fake information. Time also needs to be invested upfront in terms of direct engagement to build trust not just with regulators but with the public, whom despite what a lot of in-house corp comms people think, or choose to tactically disbelieve. Plainly speaking, non-scientific lobby groups pressure politicians who pressure regulators. This is just what it is, I’ve been there.

What you can do in brand, message, and content planning is consider that this environment is a large part of the landscape in which your messages will land and thusly interpreted in this context.

I could go on and on, but I’m pretty sure my editor is going to come in and cut me off on account of word count… However, I’ll say this. Whilst we should all take responsibility for building our own filters, our position is you can’t rely on the rationality and alignment of so many different publics to define strategy and frankly, it’s negligent to do so. If you are the stewards of a high-tech brand, in a country that is involved in major geopolitical events, you must plan for being embroiled in such an event. It’s not “if”, it’s “when”.

I know Adrienne’s counsel will reach our constant readers and will resonate. I don’t worry about you. But for the world at large, we need to plan for emotional responses that are not easily reached with logic and science because for our joint missions to succeed, we need to help people feel that our intentions are to heal and not to harm.