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Why a Botnet Offering Free Taco Bell For a Year is More Threatening Than You Think

Consumers know that fake content exists on the internet. But it can be challenging to identify what is fake and what is real especially when posts are being liked and shared thousands of time. Disinformation threats seek to be discrete and cause this type of confusion. They do this by targeting brands that you would least expect and creating false narratives surrounding them. But it’s that subtlety that allows botnets and disinformation campaigns to thrive, and that’s what can make these types of coordinated attacks more threatening than you think. Recently, such was the case with a TacoBell botnet.

Yo quiero TacoBots?

New Knowledge discovered a group of Russian botnet accounts that were pushing forward promotional content surrounding Taco Bell and the popular California-based music festival Coachella. The content farm, a part of a group of IRA accounts released by Twitter, published tweets including “Free Lunch for a Year at Taco Bell” and “FREE pass to the 2013 Coachella Music Festival!”

Taco bell bot tweets

Twitter recently released data sets that contained content associated with potential influence operations, that have been up and running since 2016. The tweets that New Knowledge discovered were not a part of this data set, meaning that they were still live in 2018. Why?

While this is seemingly innocuous compared to disinformation surrounding GMOs, elections, and other forms of information warfare it still poses a unique threat to brands and should be addressed. No matter the severity of a disinformation campaign, it needs to be taken seriously.

Why we should pay attention to disinformation attacks, big and small?

Not every disinformation attack is on the same level as that of election interference. But that doesn’t discount the fact that they need to be taken just a seriously, as the impact, though different, can be just as significant as gaming a ballot.

Social media disinformation can pose many risks to a brand, including security, brand reputation, and integrity. But digging deeper into these areas that are impacted, botnets and a fake amplified audience can be a major problem to other areas of your business that help grow your brand and acquire new customers. Here’s how:

Spending your marketing dollars

Brands spend millions of marketing dollars on advertising, email campaigns, events and more. And every year a certain amount of money is allotted to these activities based on previous digital engagement actions and conversions. With groups of coordinated false accounts clicking on sponsored ads, where you are paying cost per click or cost per impression, they are effectively burning through your allotted spend and limiting the exposure your content can get with real potential customers.

Skewing customer data

Social media can provide valuable customer insights. We live in an age where customer data is precious. Brands can make decisions based on how their customers react to their marketing, new product launches, events, social posts, and make better, and smarter decisions based on reaction.

Disinformation campaigns and bot networks pose a risk to this as they can amplify and create a sentiment surrounding a brand’s marketing and external presence that might not even exist. From there brands, not knowing that a spike in their customer engagement is false, make strategic decisions based off of these reactions. For example, a disinformation campaign targeting the launch of a specific product by pushing forward a narrative that consumers hate it, when in reality they actually like it could cause marketers to make decisions based off of this reaction, like discontinuing the product or making changes to it that weren’t necessary. Gaming sentiment can cause marketers to log customer data that is not accurate and skew their entire database.

Maintaining trust and brand loyalty

It takes time to build customer trust, and takes no time at all to lose it. In the case of Taco Bell, the botnet was falsely advertising that the fast food giant was running a contest in which customers could win free food. Customers that trust and love the brand, were likely excited and intrigued by this opportunity. Finding out that is was false could be disappointing and cost Taco Bell customers ss a consumer that was expecting a sale, or a contest entry, finding out that it was false can make a brand seem untrustworthy. While, this specific example is small in comparison to the types of customer centric events that botnets could amplify, it still is one that brands should take seriously.

No matter how trivial or innocuous a brand attack may seem, it should not be ignored and should be taken seriously. It’s up to brands to take the right preventive measures to make sure that their reputation, and their internal resources, aren’t manipulated as a result.

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