Disinformation (Part 3)

December 18, 2012

I have talked so far about not using disinformation and how to deal with it.  I suppose I should spend a little bit more time on what it is.

The best way to spot disinformation is to understand how it can be created.  There are two ways: disinformation created affirmatively when your target is intentionally misleading people with erroneous or exaggerated information, and passive, where relevant information is concealed.  In either case, the disinformation is aimed at establishing false value judgments, creating erroneous impressions, diverting attention from defects or problems, or just hiding the facts.  So let’s look at the way this comes into the marketplace – intentionally or accidentally.

Intentional disinformation almost always originates from the business itself.  In one case we dealt with, a business arranged for one of its officers get an interview in a local newspaper to improve that firm’s image in the community.  During the interview, the reporter’s expected questions about the firm, its plans, and its future were all answered, in some cases with great care, by the officer.  The reporter left with his notes, perhaps recording a portion of the interview, handouts, and of course impressions.  When the article was finally written, all of these went into the final product.  There’s where the disinformation occurred. In writing the article, the conclusions drawn by the reporter were not precisely correct.  In fact, the person giving the interview worked quite hard to have the reporter draw certain conclusions without ever stating these as facts. This enabled the reporter, not the officer, to produce the disinformation – unknowingly.

At this point, the article became an input to the trade publications, to investment analysts, and to others following the firm or the industry in general.  In turn these sources may generate a second level of disinformation.

Accidental disinformation can also happen, but is significantly less common.  Let me give you an example. At one point in the past, due to a rise in bank mergers, many small regional banks in the US reviewed their long-range plans to see whether they should seek to be acquired, prepare to oppose such an acquisition, or make a defensive acquisition on their own.  As a part of such review, they often hired outside consultants to advise them on their options.

One case, a bank holding company retained such a firm.  The bank did not intend to publicize this fact.  The firm was actually hired to provide general advice; it was not a step towards acquisition or towards a sale.  However, the firm that the bank hired did not “get the word,” about avoiding publicity – just the opposite. The consulting firm issued a press release about its retention, publicizing the hiring to get future business.  The press release was duly picked up by the business media, but some who saw the resulting article came to the erroneous conclusion that the bank was seeking to be acquired.  Why? They concluded that the bank released this information, particularly in publications serving areas that none of the bank’s own subsidiaries served.  The result was the bank was quickly misidentified as a potential acquisition target.  As a result of this undesired attention, the bank actually had to take steps to protect itself against a possible takeover while deciding whether she even actively seek such a takeover.

This will be the last blog until new year.  Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Disinformation (Part 2)

December 14, 2012

Disinformation is something that looks like information but is not.  For CI purposes, disinformation is incomplete or inaccurate information designed to mislead others about your target’s intentions or abilities.

Disinformation is not the same as puffing, which is an advertising “overstatement” falling short of fraud. In business, disinformation is created intentionally, aiming at misleading competitors and others with erroneous or exaggerated information. It can also be generated simply by concealing relevant information[1]. In either case, the disinformation is aimed at establishing false value judgments, creating erroneous impressions, diverting attention from defects or problems, or hiding facts.

Trying to decide whether a competitor is using it is important:

  • If you don’t consider whether a key piece of data represents disinformation, and, in fact, it does, this failure can be destructive. Moreover, you may not recognize its destructive effect until it is too late to counteract it.
  • If you look for the disinformation, you may not spot it. In that case, your CI analysis could be affected in a direction and to a degree you cannot predict.
  • You may find what you think is disinformation, when it is not really there. That means you simply become more suspicious about the credibility you assign to what is really accurate data and more reluctant to rely on it without further confirmation. Not much of a cost.
  • You may be correct in spotting disinformation. In that case, handling it properly allows you to avoid its damaging effects on your CI analysis.

If you have identified data that appears to be disinformation, handle it as follows:

  1. Is the reason for your concern the source of the data or the nature of the data itself? If your concern is due to a questionable data source, you should look for other sources to verify the data. If your reason arises out of concern in the nature of the data itself, you should seek confirmation or contradiction from all sources, including the original source.
  2. If you are not sure whether the data is disinformation, try to estimate the likelihood of its accuracy and then explicitly assign a probability of accuracy to it. This may allow you to use the data, even while there is a question about its validity.
  3. Analyze why the potential disinformation was created, or allowed to continue. If you cannot see a reason why the source would have created it or permitted it to exist, it may not be disinformation. On the other hand, if you can determine why it may have been created or allowed to continue, you may not only have identified it as disinformation, but you may now understand what the source was trying to accomplish.
  4. If there remains any question about critical, non-confirmable data, treat it as disinformation.

However, don’t overreact. Be sensitive to the distinction between burnishing a corporate image and disinformation. Remember, the success of a disinformation initiative requires that you, the target, be willing to be deceived.

[1] It can happen by accident, but that is very rare.

Disinformation (Part 1)

December 11, 2012

Last week, I posted a blog dealing with the problem of misinformation.  This time I want to deal with disinformation, something radically different.

Misinformation reflects your misunderstanding of what you see.  Disinformation is an affirmative effort by someone else to mislead you into seeing things that are not there or are not seeing things that are.  To make it more formal, disinformation is incomplete or inaccurate information designed to mislead you about another’s intentions or abilities. When used in international politics, espionage, or intelligence, it also means the deliberate production and dissemination of falsehoods, fabrications, and forgeries aimed at misleading an opponent or those supporting an opponent.

One of the things that should be of concern is that, once you discover the concept of business disinformation, and it is more prevalent than you think, you may be tempted to engage in disinformation yourself.  Stop right there!

Why stop?  Because using disinformation, under any criteria, is wrong.  Let me explain:

  • In some contexts disinformation is illegal, such as disinformation generated by a public company as to its financial state.
  • Disinformation is corrosive.  By that I mean that, for disinformation to truly work, many of those involved in communicating the disinformation to its target must actually believe in and act in accord with the disinformation.  Once the disinformation is unmasked, the source of the disinformation will lose credibility.  In the business context, this means the company will lose credibility with its employees, because they have been misled in an effort to trick a competitor.
  • Disinformation is always unethical, and if you do not understand why then you have some reading and thinking to do about ethics. Disinformation, if taken too far, can cross over into fraud. But even when it does not cross over, it is great gray, and, frankly distasteful, area between strict honesty and fraud.

How can you spot disinformation aimed at you (or others)? We will talk about that in the future.

Some Pig!

December 7, 2012

A couple of current projects that we are working on have highlighted the problem of misdirection.  By misdirection,   I mean that you end up looking somewhere that seems to be interesting or important or even attractive, and by doing so, you may miss what is really important.  The title of this blog, “Some Pig” is taken from Charlotte’s Web and refers to the scene where the spider draws attention to the pig by doing something spectacular.  In all fairness, the attention should have been on “some spider”, but the misdirection served a good purpose.

In CI, what happens is when we research things, we often have to look over a broad area, and, at first, determine what is likely to be important and what is not important.  This is where, initially, misdirection can set in.  Now I’m not dealing with misdirection that is purposeful by the targets, although that can happen as well.  What I’m dealing with is misdirection because of your focus.

Let me give you a somewhat cleaned up example.  We’re looking at a project that involves evaluating some aspects of a very large industrial complex.  As it turns out industrial complex is made up of several different, but somewhat connected, facilities.  So the first question really is which facility or facilities should we focus our attention on?  To do this, we have to do a first dig into each of the facilities, at least to rule them in or out.

Misdirection can easily set in here.  When? When the information on one of the preliminary targets is very interesting, or very complex and therefore requires a lot of attention, or is somewhat easy to obtain and results in a take of a lot of raw data.  In any one of those cases, you, as the analyst, face the issue of allocation of your resources, that is, how much time you put into evaluating each of these.  And here is where misdirection can come in.  If you find one of the three facilities that seem to have an interesting history, or a very unusual management structure, or a particularly complex way of operating, it is likely you will spend too much time on that facility during the first stage.  You should be, instead, deciding whether or not you be should be spending any time on the facility.

Now, misdirection by your target is a whole different thing.  Here you have to be aware of the fact that you are being led in a certain direction, to certain fact patterns, and even to certain conclusions.  The tipoff here is often that the data that you seek seems to be almost too easy to obtain.  But, if pursued, it is almost impossible to verify.  Now it is perfectly possible that the data is correct and complete, but you have no way of knowing that.  So when you see a target where the “answer” seems to be way too easy, think misdirection.  Or instead of “Some Pig”, think “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” (Wizard of Oz, 1939).

A related topic is disinformation, one which I will deal with in the future.


December 4, 2012

Competitive intelligence involves dealing with people as well as with secondary sources.  In our practice, we have times when we deal quite a lot with government offices, primarily at the state and local levels.  We are typically trying to get copies of documents filed with a municipality, county government, or state office.

The procedure is relatively simple.  Most states have freedom of information (FOIA) or open records laws that require governments to provide copies of records as long as the people asking for them specify what records they are looking for, and agree to pay for copying costs, in some cases search costs.

What do I have found over the years is that being polite may be as critical to successful research assignment as being precise is.

What do I mean?

In talking with my partner in all things, Carolyn Vella, I happened to mention that I had been trying to get some documents from a local government.  The local government office assigned someone to this and I received an email back after a day or two, saying that only one document had been filed, but that the office expected another document to be filed later.

Now, why did that person mention the document to be filed later?  Because when I first received an acknowledgement of the request, which told me it be would handed it off to someone else, I replied by email, “Thanks”.  When I received the information that only one filing was available now, I again thanked the sender, now a different person.  I later sent a follow-up email, asking whether or not I could be informed when the second document was available to the public.

Realize that this government unit did not have to tell me this.  The office could have simply said “please contact us again later in the year or next year, and renew your request”, which would’ve been totally proper and which I would’ve done.

However, the individual with whom I was dealing sent back an acknowledgement saying, essentially, certainly.  That individual then added a smiley face.  That made me smile as well.

Being polite in person, over the phone, or in emails will never hurt you.  In some cases, it may well help you.  The likelihood that, during the course of one or two or three years, we will contact the same person in the infinite number bureaucracies we have in the United States is remote, but such things happen.

Treating people nicely improves your results.  It also improves your life.  Few things can cause more distress than getting upset at the inaction or the failure of another person or institution.  If you adopt a positive attitude when you are talking with or emailing people, even smiling during a telephone conversation (believe me, people can tell), you’ll get along better with others and might even make your job easier.  It will certainly make it more pleasing.