This story was reported in partnership with the Reporter, an investigative news site in Taiwan.
Peng Kuan Chin pulled out his phone, eager to show the future of online manipulation.
Unseen servers began crawling the web for Chinese articles and posts. The system quickly reorganized the words and sentences into new text. His screen displayed a rapidly increasing tally of the articles generated by his product, which he dubs the “Content Farm Automatic Collection System."
With the articles in hand, a set of websites that Peng controlled published them, and his thousands of fake social media accounts spread them across the internet, instantly sending manipulated content into news feeds, messaging app inboxes, and search results.
"I developed this for manipulating public opinion,” Peng told the Reporter, an investigative news site in Taipei, which partnered with BuzzFeed News for this article. He added that automation and artificial intelligence “can quickly generate traffic and publicity much faster than people.”
The 32-year-old wore Adidas Yeezy sneakers and a gold Rolex as he sat in a two-story office in the industrial part of Taichung that was filled with feng shui items such as a money frog and lucky bamboo. A riot gun, which uses compressed air to fire nonlethal projectiles, rested on his desk. Peng said he bought it for “recreational purposes.”
In the interview, he detailed his path from sending spam emails as a 14-year-old to, being recruited to help with the 2018 reelection campaign of Najib Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia.
Peng’s clients are companies, brands, political parties, and candidates in Asia. “Customers have money, and I don't care what they buy," he said. They’re purchasing an end-to-end online manipulation system, which can influence people on a massive scale — resulting in votes cast, products sold, and perceptions changed.
Peng’s product is modeled on automation software he saw in China, which he believes no one else outside the mainland has. But while his technology may be unique, his company, Bravo-Idea, is not. There is now a worldwide industry of PR and marketing firms ready to deploy fake accounts, false narratives, and pseudo news websites for the right price.
If disinformation in 2016 was characterized by Macedonian spammers pushing pro-Trump fake news and Russian trolls running rampant on platforms, 2020 is shaping up to be the year communications pros for hire provide sophisticated online propaganda operations to anyone willing to pay. Around the globe, politicians, parties, governments, and other clients hire what is known in the industry as “black PR” firms to spread lies and manipulate online discourse.
A BuzzFeed News review — which looked at account takedowns by platforms that deactivated and investigations by security and research firms — found that since 2011, at least 27 online information operations have been partially or wholly attributed to PR or marketing firms. Of those, 19 occurred in 2019 alone.
Most recently, in late December, Twitter announced it removed more than 5,000 accounts that it said were part of “a significant state-backed information operation” in Saudi Arabia carried out by marketing firm Smaat. The same day, Facebook announced a takedown of hundreds of accounts, pages, and groups that it found were engaged in “foreign and government interference” on behalf of the government of Georgia. It attributed the operation to Panda, an advertising agency in Georgia, and to the country’s ruling party.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told BuzzFeed News “the professionalization of deception” is a growing threat.
“The broader notion of deception and influence operations has been around for some time, but over the past several years, we have seen [...] companies grow up that basically build their business model around deception,” he said.
Although Peng may be one of the most sophisticated black PR practitioners, he is far from the only one. The Saudi and Georgian revelations followed a drumbeat of similar takedowns of and investigations into marketing and PR firms in countries such as Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Brazil, Indonesia, and Poland.
Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer and the author of True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News, told BuzzFeed News that information operations by nation-states like Russia and Iran have provided “a playbook for individuals and groups that are financially motivated to delve into this space.”
The emergence of black PR firms means investigators at platforms, security firms, and within the intelligence community are “spending increasing amounts of time looking at the disinformation-for-hire services that are out there,” said Otis.
The Archimedes Group, an Israeli black PR firm, created networks of hundreds of Facebook pages, accounts, and groups around the world, boasting on its website that it would “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.” For an election in Mali, it managed a fake fact-checking page that claimed to be run by local students. In Tunisia, it ran a page titled “Stop à la Désinformation et aux Mensonges” (“Stop Disinformation and Lies”). In Nigeria, it ran pages advocating for and against the same politician, former vice president Atiku Abubakar. Researchers postulated that the pro-Abubakar page “was likely designed to identify his supporters in order to target them with anti-Abubakar content later.”
In Ukraine, the PR firm Pragmatico employed dozens of young, digitally savvy people to pump out positive comments on fake Facebook accounts about clients. In Poland, Cat@Net managed networks of fake Twitter accounts operated by staffers with disabilities working from home, whom the agency hired because it could pay them below-market rates while they received government subsidies. Reporting by Investigate Europe also found Cat@Net performed work for one of Poland’s most prominent PR agencies, Art-Media. (The company denied working with Cat@Net.)
In Puerto Rico, journalists revealed that former governor Ricardo Rosselló was an administrator of a Telegram group chat where a consultant from marketing firm KOI appeared to plan and direct social media campaigns to push pro-government messages and attack rivals. In August, Rosselló resigned, in part over widespread outrage over the chats.
Peng’s career is a road map of how online manipulation services evolved from solo operations to agencies that openly advertise their services and employ large staffs.
At 14 years old, he wrote an email spam program to stuff mailboxes of people in Taiwan. “Using 30 computers I had in a room, I became a very big player in sending spam,” Peng said. “I think 1 of every 2 people in Taiwan has received junk mails that I was responsible for.”
In high school, he created software to spam popular internet message boards with offers, labeling the product as an "Automatic Bulletin Posting Kit.” One ad asked visitors to porn sites, "Do you know that excessive masturbation can cause impotence and premature ejaculation?" Peng said the fearmongering ad helped drive sales for male enhancement pills he was promoting.
Peng created thousands of fake accounts on popular Chinese message boards to promote his and his clients’ products. He soon began making and selling websites and counseling via Skype on how to make money online.
“I hosted so many that I even lost my voice! I was a high school student then, and my mother was wondering what I was doing speaking on the phone all day,” he said.
In 2011, singers from schools across Taiwan competed in a popular TV competition. Peng’s alma mater won; its performer received more than 41 million online votes, almost twice the Taiwanese population. A school official confirmed to the Reporter that the school had requested help from Peng in the competition but declined to comment further.
Since 2013, Peng has been developing his “Content Farm Automatic Collection System.” His clients use his system to overwhelm their chosen corners of the internet with torrents of AI-generated text that influence search results. Peng perfected the system by buying the services of every social media and SEO manipulation offering he could find on Taobao, a huge Chinese e-commerce site owned by Alibaba.
“I was scammed a few times in the beginning because I didn’t really understand the software,” he said. “Many of them were fake or useless.”
Peng instructed his six developers to build a system inspired by the best of what he saw.
“This marketing logic is in response to China’s huge population of 1.4 billion people, [where content] only gets eyeballs when there is volume,” he said. “In comparison, there are only 23 million people in Taiwan. Applying this logic, I will create the largest volume in the shortest amount of time, and the information I spread will reach everyone’s eyes.”
While Peng focuses on automation, black PR firms elsewhere rely on manual labor, using brute force with what he does with code.
For investigative reporter Vasil Bidun, that meant an eight-hour shift in the trendy Podil neighborhood of Kyiv. He would log on to different fake Facebook accounts to comment in favor of candidates, criticize their opponents, or steer conversations in specific directions. Ukraine’s presidential election was underway, and he said his employer, Pragmatico, seemed to have secured contracts with several people running for office. (All politicians asked about the troll farm have denied involvement.)
“The aim is to get an emotional reaction from a person,” Bidun said in an interview. “If they read a comment, even [if they understand] that it was written by a bot, it could have affected them emotionally and it becomes more difficult for them to control themselves.”
“Cat@Net said it was a PR company, but in reality it was [a] troll farm.”
But Bidun wasn’t just punching the clock at the agency. After three months working undercover at the agency, he published an in-depth investigation. He and roughly 50 other Pragmatico employees worked in a single apartment, rotating in three shifts. It was mostly students trying to earn extra money, just over $300 per month, he said. No one talked about the ethics of the work — they just did what they were told, promoting the candidacies of both conservative and progressive politicians, including popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.
“It was the summer break and it was a method to earn a bit of money,” he said. “Most don’t think much about the consequences their work can have; they just write.”
Two days before Bidun’s investigation was published in September 2019, Facebook announced the removal of the firm's assets on the platform, which amounted to 168 accounts, 149 pages, and 79 groups. The social media giant also revealed that Pragmatico had spent $1.6 million on ads, a significant sum for the Ukrainian market.
But black PR continues to flourish on social media in other parts of Eastern Europe. This year, while reporting for Investigate Europe, Katarzyna Pruszkiewicz spent six months undercover working for Cat@Net, a Polish company that describes itself as an “ePR agency comprising specialists who build a positive image of companies, private individuals and public institutions — mostly in social media.”
“Cat@Net said it was a PR company, but in reality it was [a] troll farm. They did fake accounts,” she told BuzzFeed News. (The company denied it was a troll farm in a statement posted to its website.)
Pruszkiewicz said she and her colleagues used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to deliver work for the firms’ clients. This meant promoting Polish state media, pumping up the left-wing politicians who hired them, or attacking the government’s decision to place an order for American F-35 fighter jets.
Cat@Net’s staffers worked remotely, congregating in Slack to receive their assignments. Sometimes a professional copywriter would provide them content, but many times it was up to employees to come up with messages for the fake accounts. Team members would celebrate each other’s successes, such as “when someone important like a politician answered a comment from the fake accounts,” Pruszkiewicz said.
Cat@Net focused on hiring people with disabilities because they could be paid less and qualified for government subsidies, according to Pruszkiewicz.
“They are in a wheelchair and have bills to pay. They are often without professional skills, and Cat@Net gave them work and got from the state a lot of money for [employing] these people,” she said.
After her reporting was published in October 2019 in Newsweek Poland, the Polish government opened an investigation into the company for the disability benefits it received. However, Twitter accounts run by Cat@Net are still online, Pruszkiewicz said.
“The fake accounts still exist today and are writing on Twitter like nothing happened, and every day I can see what they are writing on Twitter and Facebook. It’s really frustrating, because I spent six months [investigating] and the company still exists,” she said.
Nowhere is the rise of black PR firms more intertwined with marketing and politics than in the Philippines. Many legitimate-seeming agencies here offer black PR services that include fake social media accounts, websites, and coordinated harassment campaigns.
This year, Facebook announced takedowns of properties attributed to Twinmark Media Enterprises, a digital marketing company in the Philippines, and Nic Gabunada, the social media director for Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 campaign. In both cases, Facebook said the operations were engaged in “coordinated inauthentic activity.”
Gabunada previously insisted in an interview with BuzzFeed News that the Facebook engagement for Duterte’s campaign had been “organic” and “volunteer-driven.”
As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, some politicians who had decried Duterte’s use of fake Facebook accounts and trolling in 2016 had used social media manipulation services in their own campaigns.
Black PR services have become so lucrative in the Philippines that many PR firms feel pressured to offer them. One agency director told BuzzFeed News it’s “tempting” to offer black PR services because of the potential profit. It’s difficult to compete against companies who deliver these services, she added.
“We've had several campaigns where we were up against other firms that were willing to employ any kind of tactic to combat whatever we were putting out there if we were promoting a candidate and they were promoting an opposing candidate, for instance,” said the agency director, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the industry.
“The Philippines offers a cautionary tale for other countries.”
Jonathan Corpus Ong, an associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been studying black PR firms and trolling in the Philippines for years. “The Philippines offers a cautionary tale for other countries for what happens when disinformation production within the PR industry has become so financially lucrative that they have moved from shady black market transactions to the professional respectability of the corporate boardroom,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Ong said PR firms use industry jargon while communicating with clients to help “neutralize the stigma of the real disinformation work that they do.”
“For instance, they would use the terms ‘supplemental pages’ and ‘digital support workers’ to describe what is otherwise known as ‘fake news sites’ or ‘paid trolls’ when they pitch their services to prospective clients. This lends an aura of respectability to the transaction and — crucially — gives politicians a level of plausible deniability,” he said.
The rise of black PR firms is on the radar of the global PR industry, which has long battled problems of its own making. In 2017, the industry took a stand against social media manipulation when the Public Relations and Communications Association expelled Bell Pottinger, a now-defunct London-based PR firm, after investigating its work in South Africa, where the firm stoked racial tensions in service of a billionaire client. Bell Pottinger previously received a $500 million contract from the Pentagon to execute a top secret propaganda program in Iraq, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Global agencies often look to industry rules. Jill Tannenbaum, the chief communications and marketing officer for PR giant Weber Shandwick, told BuzzFeed News that the company must “engage audiences with campaigns that are rooted in truth,” even when it “compete[s] in markets where dishonest tactics take place.”
“We have a process in place to assess any client engagements that might not adhere to our values or include tactics that are not truthful or transparent, so we can counsel our teams and our clients accordingly,” she said in a statement. “Our local leaders – in the Philippines and around the world – are empowered to turn away work that is of concern or that does not adhere to our values.”
In the wake of the Bell Pottinger expulsion, the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, an umbrella organization representing PR trade groups around the world, established 10 principles known as the Helsinki Declaration. They require communication professionals to “be aware of the power of social media, and use it responsibly” and to “never engage in the creation of or knowingly circulate fake news.”
Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA and chief executive of the ICCO, told BuzzFeed News that black PR firms give ethical practitioners a bad name.
“Our members are furious that they are ever tainted with the stain of these people who operate outside of [the industry's] ethical parameters,” he said.
In spite of the increasing number of information operations being attributed to PR or marketing firms, Ingham said, these firms are the exception.
“I recognize there will always be a tiny percentage of people who call themselves PR or marketing practitioners who operate in the gray or black area,” he said.
While the legitimate PR industry works to differentiate itself from these practitioners, platforms are finding it increasingly difficult to prune black PR from their ecosystems.
“If the company is working on multiple platforms and has a wide range of business interests, we might not be able to completely destroy them,” said Facebook’s Gleicher.
He said Facebook’s approach is to remove assets involved in a specific operation and ban the entire organization. In some cases, Facebook also bans key employees from the platform.
“The reason we do that is making it very clear that it’s not going to be a profitable business model on our platform,” Gleicher said. “You build a business around this, we will remove you.”
Peng, however, is undeterred. He said it’s easy to evade Facebook’s controls, and that demand for his services remains strong.
“I think cracking Facebook is quite easy. My software is developed to constantly fight against Facebook,” he said. “This is done because there are markets, customers, and needs, and people have money to pay for the service. We do it because there is a demand.” ●
Najib Razak was defeated in the 2018 Malaysian elections. This article misstated that the former prime minister resigned.
Facebook removed accounts and other assets linked to Pragmatico before Vasil Bidun's investigation was published. This article misstated that the removals occurred after his report.