The Real Cost of Disinformation 

February 21, 2024
4 min

Disinformation has been around for as long as humans have told lies. But the evolution and democratization of technology - the internet, social media and AI in particular - have led to the radical increase in the speed at which disinformation can spread and the scale of its impact. No longer is disinformation reserved for political spy-games, but rather it’s become a dangerous risk for companies, brands and individuals across the corporate world. 

What is Disinformation?

Disinformation is the intentional spread of false information to erode trust. Campaigns can be started by disgruntled employees, competitors looking to gain an advantage, opportunistic groups looking to spread chaos (QAnon), and even foreign actors seeking to manipulate stock prices or discredit emerging technologies.

And it's big business. According to the Oxford Internet Institute, the disinformation-for-hire market is “booming”. There are advertising, marketing and public relations companies dedicated to the manipulation of online opinion, while the democratization of technologies such as generative-AI mean that anyone, anywhere, at any time can launch a malicious disinformation campaign - there are over three billion images and 720,000 hours of video produced daily.  Making matters worse, a recent study found that only 11% of journalists actually use media verification tools which means that scope for fake content to be disseminated quickly is high.

Disinformation Drives Physical Security Risks
The Wayfair incident in June 2020 illustrates how disinformation can cause serious physical threats and financial harm. Disinformation stemming from Russia, accused the company of trafficking children through product codes on Russian-search engine Yandex, causing the theory to spread across social media. QAnon conspiracy theorists soon claimed that after they put stock-keeping unit (SKU) numbers of specific Wayfair products into Yandex, images of young women would appear in the results.

The conspiracy theory rapidly spread across both the dark web and mainstream social media platforms, including Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook. QAnon supporters, believing they were combating a company involved in illegal activities, attempted to devalue Wayfair's stock and disclosed employee personal details online, including photos and office locations. Although no violent incidents against Wayfair employees were reported, the spread of personal information posed a significant risk. Additionally, these believers circulated missing children cases, falsely alleging their sale on Wayfair, which hindered official case investigations.

Comet Pizza in Washington D.C. serves as another example where disinformation had an impact. QAnon conspiracy theorists falsely claimed that the pizzeria, linked to Democratic candidates, was trafficking children. This misinformation led to an armed individual attacking the store, under the belief that children were trapped inside. 

Disinformation Impacts Stock Price & Revenue

Disinformation costs companies around $80 billion each year. A notable target of such campaigns has been the global investment firm, BlackRock, which due to its commitment to environmental, social, and corporate governance principles, has attracted significant criticism from alt-right groups. It has been alleged by online trolls and bots on alternative social media platforms that BlackRock's substantial stake in numerous companies positions it to attempt control over mankind by advocating for progressive policies. This reputation precipitated targeting by conservative-led entities, including in the State of Florida where the Treasury withdrew $2 billion in state funds from BlackRock, attributing the divestment to BlackRock's "social-engineering project," a project to which he claimed Florida had not consented, in an interview with Newsweek.

A more recent example is McDonalds - the company’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, recently attributed the company’s underperformance in the Middle East to "war and associated misinformation." In Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, McDonalds is facing empty stores as pro-Palestinian activists claim McDonalds is operating in Israeli settlements. 

In 2019, Metro Bank, based in the UK, fell victim to disinformation when rumors spread through Whatsapp and Facebook suggested the bank was facing a liquidity crisis. These rumors incited public concern regarding the bank's financial stability, leading to long queues of customers withdrawing funds from their savings accounts. Meanwhile in India, the national poultry industry experienced a 50% drop in 2020 revenues during Covid, when a Whatapp disinformation campaign claimed Covid could be transmitted through poultry consumption. 

Another notable instance involved a fraudulent tweet claiming that Eli Lilly would offer free insulin on November 10, 2022. The pharmaceutical giant quickly refuted the claim, yet by the following day, its market valuation had plummeted by approximately $22 billion.

Disinformation Discredits Brands & Damages Reputation

In 2021, it was revealed that major companies, including Nike, Amazon, Ted Baker, and Asos, had placed advertisements on websites disseminating Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories. The direct impact on their revenues remains unclear, but the association with such content has the potential to tarnish their reputations. 

According to Integral Ad Science, 85% of consumers report they would cease using a brand or product if its advertisements were displayed alongside false or inflammatory content. Marketers are acutely aware of the risk this poses, with 42% expressing concern over the adverse effects on their brand’s reputation due to advertising in proximity to misinformation.

Nike found itself at odds with conservative groups following its endorsement of Colin Kaepernick, the football player known for kneeling during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter. The controversy surrounding Nike was further intensified by Russian bots, which significantly amplified and disseminated disinformation about the brand, fueling calls for a boycott against the renowned sneaker company.

Boeing has also experienced a notable decline in its brand reputation recently. The company came under scrutiny from the alt-right following an incident where an Alaska Airlines flight encountered a mid-air door blowout, which the alt-right attributed to Boeing's Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. They criticized the company for allegedly prioritizing the hiring of minority groups over qualified individuals. These accusations were amplified by far-right political commentator Tim Pool in a Bitchute video, where he claimed that "woke, DEI policies are resulting in a failure and collapse in infrastructure and our economy.” 

Outlook & Conclusion

Malicious disinformation campaigns specifically manufactured to damage corporations and discredit their brands and executives will grow into big business over the next five years. What’s more, the democratization of gen-AI will make creation and deployment of these campaigns cheap and easy, while they also become harder to detect and refute in a timely manner.  Meanwhile, anarchist groups such as QAnon will continue to target companies at will, when they smell blood in the water enabled by their global following and the rapid expansion of the alternative social media ecosystem - virtually guaranteeing that any company or exec that gets set in their sights, will fall victim. 

Against this backdrop, companies need to quickly and seriously review their established processes for monitoring the broader social media ecosystem as well as their thresholds for what could constitute a risk. Ideas and narratives that were once dismissed as ‘crazy’ are increasingly the ones that take root and cause serious damage to reputation and result in physical harm. War-gaming scenarios and updating playbooks to include responses to malicious disinfo campaigns is urgent, as are improved collaboration processes for security, risk, intelligence and communications teams.

1 Ibid.

2 Murphy, Hannah and Venkataramakrishnan, Siddharth. “Boom in private companies offering disinformation-for-hire” Financial Times, January 12, 2021,  

3 Ibid.

4 Spring, Marianna. “Wayfair: The false conspiracy about a furniture firm and child trafficking” BBC. July 15, 2020,

5 Ibid.

6 Merrit, Kennedy. “'Pizzagate' Gunman Sentenced To 4 Years In Prison” NPR. June 22, 2017,

7 Gaskell, Adi. “3 Corporate Consequences of Misinformation to Watch Out For” Reworked. SEPTEMBER 22, 2023,

8 Paul Du Quenoy. “Florida's Divestment From BlackRock's ESG Hijacking Is Sound Public Policy | Opinion” Newsweek. December 5, 2022,

9 Ruffino, Greta. “McDonald's CEO blames 'misinformation' for Middle East losses” Euronews. January 5, 2024,

10 Katwala, Amit. “ The Metro Bank hoax shows the immense power of fake news on WhatsApp” Wired. May 14, 2019,

11 Bhardwaj, Mayank. “India chicken sales slashed almost 50% by false virus rumour - Godrej Agrovet” Reuters. February 27, 2020,

12 Arcuri, Maria Cristina. “Does fake news impact stock returns? Evidence from US and EU stock markets” Journal of Economics and Business. Vol Volumes 125–126. May–June 2023,

13 Davies, Rob and Jackson, Jasper. “Nike and Amazon among brands advertising on Covid conspiracy sites” The Guardian. September 18, 2021,

14 “Study: Consumers Reject Brands That Advertise on ‘Fake News’ and Objectionable Content Online” Double Verify. June 17, 2019,

15 Burgess, Matt. “Here's proof that Russian-backed accounts pushed the Nike boycott” Wired. September 27, 2019,

16 Carpenter, Susan. “Alaska Airlines pas­sengers describe ex­pe­rience during door plug incident” Spectrum News. January 26, 2024,

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