The dark web illuminated: PR potential in the digital shadows

For comms pros, ignoring the dark web is no longer an option. Our roundtable panel discuss the threats – and opportunities – of the digital underworld.

The dark net is often viewed with suspicion. Mention of it conjures up visions of hackers who live in their mothers’ basements taking pleasure in bringing down sites or, perhaps more sinisterly, interfering with Western democracies.

Often used as a catch-all phrase to mean anything sinister online, the terms ‘dark net’ and ‘dark web’ relate to networks of websites accessed by an anonymous web browser, the most notable being Tor. The pages are difficult to detect, shut down or censor, and their unregulated marketplaces are infamous for offering drugs, terrorist propaganda and hardcore pornography, as well as reams of stolen data. But these networks are also increasingly home to comms platforms we recognise.

In October 2017, The New York Times made its content available on the dark net. It said: “The New York Times reports on stories all over the world, and our reporting is read by people around the world. Some readers choose to use Tor to access our journalism because they’re technically blocked from accessing our website; or because they worry about local network monitoring; or because they care about online privacy; or simply because that is the method that they prefer.” It follows the same move by Facebook in 2014, and independent campaigns to host a Wikipedia platform on the dark web at the end of last year.

That means the dark net is increasingly relevant. So, in November 2017, seven prominent comms pros, authors and journalists gathered to discuss why those who safeguard the reputation of brands and businesses should be aware of what’s shared on it.

DIGITAL REFUGE

Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld and director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, explained that the dark net is “a real watering hole for the fringes of society”.

“For anyone who has something to hide or has reason to keep their identity hidden, it is a natural place for them to go,” he said. “However, you will also find resources for journalists, whistleblowing sites, and lots of valuable information for human rights activists, who, especially in some parts of the world, find it a safe and useful place to go. There are signs that it is becoming more mainstream.”

“Ignoring it is probably not a sensible notion,” agreed Andrew Smith, managing director of PR, SEO and analytics consultancy Escherman. The conundrum is this: how can a PR assess and deal with a threat that is difficult to see?

THINK 360

For Beatrice Giribaldi Groak, senior client manager at Digitalis Reputation, while the dark net might be the ultimate source of reputation issues, it is how it connects with the regular internet that matters.

To start with, she suggested: “You need to look at it in combination with what else is online to see all liabilities. When clients ask if we’ve looked at the dark net, we still have to ask: ‘Have you looked at the rest as well?’ Only then can you ask the all-important questions: ‘How easily can this information be found?’ and ‘How can it be leveraged?’”

These links are meat and drink for reporters who take advantage of dark net leaks. There is a cadre of journalists who have made delving into the dark net their speciality, in search of relatively exclusive, headline-grabbing material.

DATA HACK EXPOSÉS

In a world where personal information can be bought and sold, one of the most likely discoveries will be personal data. The dark net elevates the risk that the press will find out about your data leak before you do.

As with any exposé, you should be ready to act quickly, said Adam Hildreth, CEO of social risk experts, Crisp: “Speed of reaction is critical, which is why you need to be forewarned. If you can say ‘We found out seven days ago that we had a data breach; we didn’t want to alert the hackers so we didn’t go public, but we have issued a password reset and taken other measures’, then that’s a brand I trust. On the other hand, if you say ‘We found out eight months ago’, I’m going to wonder how it took you so long to say anything.”

In force from 25 May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation will temper appetites for an exposé by requiring that you inform the Information Commissioner of any breach within 72 hours and other concerned parties without “undue delay”. It could also help to improve the accuracy of reporting.

FAKE NEWS FORUM

It’s no surprise that fishing journalists might be tempted to run stories that they have found on the dark net, but the anonymity of sources there makes it tricky to verify facts.

“When TalkTalk has 200,000 data records taken and they are all available on one site, that’s a big story,” said Bartlett. “The journalists who spot it are ready to start writing straight away. A journalist discovered the Yahoo breach. But for some the normal standards of verification do not apply.”

He explained why some stories might not be what they appear: “[For investigative purposes,] we bought some stolen O2 data and, after contacting those affected and advising them to change their passwords, we contacted O2. They said they had not had any data stolen at all. It turned out that a gaming site had been hacked into and the hackers had tried the usernames and passwords to access accounts with other companies.”

Unfortunately, inaccurate information on the dark web does reach legitimate news outlets too. Kim Deonanan, regional VP at press release distribution service Business Wire, has seen rumours emerge that have had real-world consequences: “Transparency and the release source are key, and our strict internal checks and vetting process help to ensure bona fide content is distributed.”

Chen-Lee Tsui, European marketing manager for Business Wire, added: “For PR departments busy with their day-to-day campaigns and other work, using trusted news and distribution services is crucial.”

OVERREACTIONS KILL

While PRs should be aware of and ready to respond to any threat, our panel called for a proportionate response to dark net activity. This means striking a balance between protecting your brand and drawing attention to something that might not be noticed otherwise.

Smith sees comparisons with social media scares: “It’s not dissimilar to how senior managers might view Twitter: ‘It’s on Twitter, so the whole world can see it.’ Well, actually, there’s one unhappy person but they have two followers. If you wade in and start drawing attention to it, it becomes an issue, whereas, if you ignore it, in a few hours it’s gone away.”

“It’s about understanding if they really are influencing public perception,” agreed Giribaldi Groak. “If they have only a few followers, the chances of them really damaging your company are zero.”

What role could the professional communicator have in preventing things getting out of hand? They should clarify information quickly and clearly.

“It’s reputation management,” asserted writer and communications consultant Pam Cowburn. “When things go bad and there is no comment, the perception is that you have something to hide.”

EMBRACE THE DARK SIDE

Fear of information being stolen could account for the rise of anonymous browsing in itself. As users become more careful about what they reveal online, they are starting to see the benefits of an anonymous browser that doesn’t involve breaking the law.

Indeed, there were many stories around the table of how an easily available anonymous service has helped the truth emerge, from helping those in oppressive regimes communicate with the outside world to a group of architects creating a whistleblowing site to expose local authorities that were bypassing building regulations.

“Tor’s run by a charitable organisation,” Bartlett said. “The people are good guys. They are quite libertarian, so you might not agree with all they say, but they are doing it for the right reasons. It’s not run by criminals, but it’s being misused.”

“That’s true of any technological advancement,” replied Cowburn. “Criminals are early adopters and this means the whole phraseology of the ‘dark net’ is a problem. It’s very tabloid and will always sound negative. It’s always going to be something bad.

“When good things happen, we don’t frame them in the same way. Stories about weapons sales or child exploitation do come out because of the dark net.”

Perhaps it is the dark net itself that has the PR problem.


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2018.

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

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