Distributed Denial of Trust: How to Know If You Have a Brand Perception Problem

Here’s how narrative attacks caused by disinformation and misinformation, known as DDoT attacks, manipulate public perception through coordinated floods of harmful content.

Wasim Khaled on September 25, 2023

Distributed Denial of Trust (DDoT) attacks are an assault on human perception and represent a multi-faceted information warfare technique, including disinformation and misinformation, and are designed to disrupt the normal functioning of online communities and dialogue. These narrative attacks are a new and urgent threat every organization must grapple with because they damage brands and manipulate public perception. DDoT attacks create an inauthentic digital discourse that undermines the integrity of information exchange and degrades public trust in institutions, government, and our neighbors. 

Analogous to the well-known Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in the cyberattack sphere, DDoT attacks flood target communication networks with a deluge of deceptive, contradictory, or inflammatory content through misinformation and disinformation. As we sought to define what we saw as a cyberattack on human perception over the past several years, it became clear that a new framework and lexicon was needed to distill a new class of threat. 

Today, we are introducing a term to clarify how narrative attacks exist in today’s information ecosystem. This threat is a DDoT attack. This term refers to the sophisticated, malicious manipulation of digital discourse that seeks to undermine the integrity of information exchange, degrade public trust in conversation topics, and exacerbate social divisions. It represents a multi-faceted information warfare technique designed to disrupt the normal functioning of online communities and dialogue. Modeled after the well-known Distributed Denial of Service attacks in the cybersecurity sphere, DDoT attacks flood target areas with a deluge of deceptive, contradictory, or inflammatory content. 

NARRATIVE ATTACKS DAMAGE BRANDS

But what exactly is a narrative, and why does narrative manipulation matter? Narratives are best characterized as dominant perspectives in online conversation. In a functional information environment, narratives spread organically by internet users operating in good faith – open, honest, and traceable conversation is key in fostering trust and safety in the online information ecosystem. In recent years, the fragility of this ecosystem has been laid bare, and threat actors have developed increasingly effective means of injecting discordant narratives through misinformation and disinformation. The first method laid out in this article, the DDoT attack, is among a select group of nascent tactics that offered frighteningly effective proof-of-concept years ago and continues to erode at the online social fabric, bolstered by new techniques and technologies that blur the lines of reality.

A DDoT attack is characterized by a calculated, sweeping assault on the narrative ecosystems of online platforms, particularly social media. Its principal objective is to dislocate and disable authentic informational flow by swamping a specific topic or surrounding communities with an onslaught of posts that are designed to flood the zone with content that can reinforce or drown out naturally occurring conversations making it very difficult to understand what is real. A standard DDoS attack is typically carried out using a botnet – where a network of ‘zombie’ machines controlled by one or few central managing nodes deploys spam traffic to disable a target service. The DDoT may be deployed via an analogous vehicle – whereby a central commanding unit deploys a torrent of manipulative targeted content through a network of controlled accounts also known as a sock puppet.

DDoT attack examples include:

  • Breaches
  • Insider threat
  • Supply chain risk
  • Stock Manipulation
  • Due diligence / M&A / Corporate Intelligence
  • Critical manufacturing and infrastructure
  • ESG
  • Physical security
  • Brand Risk
  • Product attacks
  • Executive threats
  • And more

NARRATIVE ATTACKS ARE INEXPENSIVE AND SCALE RAPIDLY

While this can be cheaply done at scale through the modern ecosystem of popular social media sites, the well-provisioned threat actor can simultaneously leverage corners of the information environment that present from positions of authority – alt-media outlets, topic-focused forums, and chat services. This creates the opportunity for a groundswell, organically expanding a network of accounts that voluntarily promotes manipulated content downstream from the perpetrator’s primary circle of influence.

The strategic aim of a DDoT attack is to engender confusion, dissonance, and skepticism, thereby corroding public trust in the information ecosystem, disrupting communal harmony, and hampering the establishment of factual consensus. Rudimentary usage of this technique is easy to spot for most users with a modicum of internet literacy; near-identical content intended to advertise a product or service or phish unsuspecting users spread from suspicious accounts at scale is not a novel concept. However, threat actors leverage increasingly sophisticated methods when the target broadens from exploiting individual users to manipulating public perception.

What sets DDoT attacks apart is the innovative use of subversive techniques such as hashtag hijacking and spamming. Perpetrators harness these techniques to spin harmful narratives from what we term ‘supernodes’—individuals or accounts with substantial influence or reach. These supernodes could be controlled by humans or automated through scripted bots, forming intricate networks that work synchronously to amplify disinformation. This workflow has the potential to effectively propagate any narrative that a threat actor seeks to drive online, dressing fabricated or dangerous lines of conversation as public consensus.

Like a DDoS attack, a DDoT operation can overwhelm the digital environment with vast data. However, unlike its cybersecurity counterpart, a DDoT attack deploys text or multi-modal content instead of superfluous internet traffic. With the explosion of low-cost, high-fidelity multimodal generative AI, the threat has become more accessible and credible. DDoT perpetrators can now manufacture reality from end to end – promoting inauthentic events or ideas and harnessing generative AI to create contextual supporting imagery spread from accounts with convincing online footprints and varied personas at scale.

GENERATIVE AI MAKES NARRATIVE ATTACKS MORE DANGEROUS

Generative AI makes it easy for bad actors to create false and misleading content on a large scale. By deploying a deluge of deceptive, contradictory, or inflammatory content, a DDoT attack distorts the informational landscape and manipulates underlying social dynamics. These sophisticated disinformation campaigns are designed to exploit cognitive biases and emotional triggers, thereby steering public sentiment and behavior along preordained lines. An effectively coordinated attack can then mobilize networks of influencers in the target space to gravitate toward a newly injected narrative.

This strategy reflects a broader trend in novel info-cyberattacks, where the battlefront is less about controlling physical infrastructure and more about dominating the war on human perception. The individual battles over specific narratives and the wider campaign to shape public perception and social behavior are at stake. In this new theater of conflict, power is determined not merely by the ability to disseminate information but by the capacity to influence how that information is perceived and acted upon. 

The rise of DDoT attacks represents a significant escalation in the digital disinformation and misinformation landscape, presenting a considerable challenge for companies, governments, and civil society. As these attacks become increasingly refined, they threaten the norms of online discourse, social cohesion, and institutional credibility. Consequently, stakeholders must invest in advanced countermeasures, including comprehensive monitoring, detection, and mitigation tools, to guard against this burgeoning menace. Developing robust information literacy programs, encouraging critical thinking, and fostering transparency in digital communications will also be integral to building resilience against this new breed of disinformation attacks.

The key to transforming social conversational data into an “analytics-ready” format lies in a novel approach that formulates the problem around five key categories of signals. This offers a comprehensive view of the problem and enables efficient stratification into tractable lines of research and engineering effort. Blackbird’s Constellation Platform was purpose-built to provide Narrative and Risk Intelligence across the information ecosystem – automatically surfacing, categorizing, and evaluating perception-warping narratives. Blackbird’s engine was built on the Blackbird Signals Framework, which enables a high-fidelity understanding of the risk landscape.

BLACKBIRD SIGNALS FRAMEWORK

Narrative: Monitoring the storylines unfolding within the data, tracing the development of conversations, and observing the ebb and flow of different topics.

Networks: Analysis focusing on the relationships between user accounts and their shared content. This helps to uncover the lines of communication and influence that underpin online discourse.

Cohorts: The affiliations and belief systems expressed by authors are examined, allowing the identification of different user groups and the understanding of how these groups interact with and influence one another.

Influence: Determining the true influence of accounts within the data stream is critical. Not all accounts hold equal sway, and understanding which ones carry significant impact can be crucial to understanding the direction and influence of the narrative.

Anomalous: Identifying the presence of artificially forced dialogue, synthetic amplification via bots and coordinated bot networks, propaganda campaigns, propagation of known disinformation, and anomalous activity patterns is essential. This helps in understanding the extent of manipulation in a given dialogue or narrative, and it’s pivotal in successfully countering DDoT attacks.

By focusing on these key signal categories, it is possible to gain a more granular, comprehensive understanding of narrative Intelligence. This, in turn, provides the necessary tools to detect, decipher, and defuse DDoT attacks, effectively preserving trust within the online discourse.

As we navigate the complexities of an increasingly digital world, the threats posed by DDoT attacks are growing in scale and sophistication. Traditional methods of monitoring and response are no longer sufficient. Addressing these challenges requires a new, holistic approach that combines narrative discovery, understanding of information propagation drivers, cohort analysis, detection of manipulation and anomalies, and impact assessment. Furthermore, the power of analytics and adaptive risk profiles to deliver actionable situational awareness is critical. As the boundaries between virtual conversations and real-world events blur, the ability to understand and mitigate the impacts of DDoT attacks becomes paramount. With such a comprehensive approach, organizations can equip themselves to counter these threats effectively, protecting their communities and ensuring the integrity of public discourse.

About Blackbird.AI

BLACKBIRD.AI protects organizations from narrative attacks created by misinformation and disinformation that cause financial and reputational harm. Powered by our AI-driven proprietary technology, including the Constellation narrative intelligence platform, RAV3N Risk LMM, Narrative Feed, and our RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team, Blackbird.AI provides a disruptive shift in how organizations can protect themselves from what the World Economic Forum called the #1 global risk in 2024.

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