• Ran Margaliot

How Bots and Fake News Threaten Brands

You might find it hard to believe that bots and fake news pose a persistent and ongoing threat to your brand. It’s easy to imagine that Starbucks felt that way once, too.

But over the past several years, that company, with thousands of customer touchpoints, has faced any number of outlandish claims that spread like wildfire through social media: A manager threatening to fire employees for saying Merry Christmas; an employee angrily defiling orders; the spread of fake coupons allegedly for people of color only. All false, and all requiring a response.

Starbucks might be a popular target, but it’s not the only one challenged by bots and fake news. In recent months Tesla, Costco, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and others have all faced challenges from the spread of phony information. 

The mounting dangers of disinformation, spread so easily on social media, have caught the attention of the business world globally. The 2019 Kroll Global Fraud and Risk Report found that 84 percent of businesses say they are worried about the spread of fake news

The Risks

At scale, these methods distribute information faster than a brand’s communications teams can possibly respond. Only now are newer technologies emerging to help brands better track what’s being said about them and respond in real-time. Bots and fake news can strike at the heart of a brand in many ways. 

The first and most obvious, of course, is reputational, as in several of the Starbucks cases. Word of the free-coffee coupons for “people of color” -- allegedly offered by Starbucks to apologize for racism -- quickly spread online and into mainstream media before it was denied by the company.

Many times these fake stories are spread by bots -- automated social media accounts programmed that give the stories wider reach than they would otherwise get.  As many as 15 percent of Twitter accounts -- upwards of 50 million -- are estimated to be bots, according to “Misinformation and Disinformation: Brands in the Echo Chamber,” a 2018 white paper from Storyful, a social media agency. Sockpuppets, or fake social media accounts with people behind them, also perpetuate the distribution of fake news, Storyful says.

At scale, these methods distribute information faster than a brand’s communications teams can possibly respond. Only now are newer technologies emerging to help brands better track what’s being said about them and respond in real-time. 

Left in the wake of this for brands: Sharply diminished trust.


Bots and fake news can wreak havoc on brands in more tangible and immediate ways, especially on investment markets.

In 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused a Scottish trader of securities fraud based on fake Tweets he allegedly posted the caused substantial declines in the stock prices of two companies. The Tweets falsely stated that the companies, Audience Inc. and Sarepta Therapeutics, were under investigation. Both companies experienced double-digit declines before the fraud was discovered. The case prompted the SEC to warn investors about the impact of fraudulent social media on stock market activity.

Yes, the stock prices of both firms recovered, but not before significant chaos for stockholders and time and expense for the company. Brands need to keep their eyes and ears wide open to detect market manipulation before it’s too late.


One area that might not get a lot of attention is how bots and fake news can impact marketing strategy, particularly in the social media realm. Take, for instance, the problem of fake social media accounts that become a significant part of a brand's follower base.

Neil Patel, a best-selling New York Times author and online digital marketing influencer, argues that fake followers can skew results from social media campaigns. “Fake followers won’t interact with your brand’s social media posts,” he writes. “So, they cause lower engagement, lower rankings in the news feeds, and lower conversions for your brand.”

How We Can Help

In the words of Edelman, the PR agency giant, “business must defend and conquer.” Brands need to take ownership of the problem and deploy the resources to fight back, using new innovations that “detect, expose and destroy deliberate disinformation channels and content.”

Affogata offers a platform that enables businesses and other organizations to start fighting back.  Our system identifies narratives, anomalies and trends, surfaces bots and bot networks and helps deduce the impact of narratives and users on the public discourse.

Get in touch with our experts to get unique insights on your brand's standing in social media, whether there are any negative narratives around it, and what you should do about it. Contact us at: ran@affogata.com


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