Aug 08, 2018

How Disinformation Campaigns Capitalize on Polarizing Brands

How Disinformation Campaigns Capitalize on Polarizing Brands

When it comes to disinformation, no brand is safe. A brand that has years of clout and a great brand reputation can become the next victim of a disinformation campaign in a matter of hours. But what makes some brands easier targets than others?

The Morning Consult recently conducted a study that identified the U.S’s 30 most polarizing brands. Out of these brands many have had disinformation and misinformation affect them in some form or fashion. Polarizing brands are an easy target for disinformation as they are already at the center of a controversial narrative, and it gives trolls and covert organizations a springboard to further ignite and launch an attack.

Polarizing brands can be easy targets for disinformation campaigns

Data: Morning Consult "CSR and Political Activism in the Trump Era"; Note: The survey's margin of error is 0.5–3.1 percentage points; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Here are a few examples of how disinformation has thrived off of these polarizing brands.

National Football League

The NFL has come into the spotlight recently as a polarizing brand for the attention it’s drawn with African American players taking a knee during the National Anthem. This has drawn much criticism and conflict from it’s largely patriotic fanbase.

New Knowledge found that a large-scale Russian-backed propaganda operation took advantage of this controversy, and used it as springboard to undermine the US sports industry. Thousands of fake accounts were created and coordinated to amplify divisive opinion and manipulate fan behavior with misleading narratives about race, nationalism, and social justice. Hashtags like “#takeaknee” and “#BoycottNFL” spread with the help of botnets and soon were trending in the mainstream.

False Twitter claims spread by bots

By amplifying both sides of the controversy, these disinformation campaigns were able heighten the divisiveness of all arguments and ultimately tarnish the way both of these parties felt about the reputation of the NFL.


The well known fast food chain, has had its share of controversy for the religious foundation that its company is founded on and their involvement in donating to organization that push anti-gay agendas.

As soon as the internet caught wind of this, it went wild. There were claims that Democrats were drafting legislation that would make eating Chick-Fil-A a hate crime, and soon these claims turned into viral articles spread throughout social media.

The effects of the degree of disinformation spread around this controversy has cost Chick-Fil-A once loyal customers that now refuse to eat there. Chick-Fil-A states that their stores don’t discriminate against customers based on gender, age, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.

Chick-fil-a at the center of a disinformation


When it comes to disinformation, it doesn’t discriminate. Brands that have spent years being covered favorable in the spotlight, can have their brand reputation jeopardized in no time at all. Such was the case with Starbucks.

The Seattle-based coffee franchise, found itself at the center of a heated controversy after one of its employees kicked two African American men were kicked out of the store and arrested. It wasn’t long before the incident was making headlines in the mainstream media and the narrative that Starbucks was racist arose.

Starbucks social media disinformation
Starbucks disinformation
Starbucks media disinformation

Internet trolls that opposed the brand saw this emerging narrative as an opportunity to heighten it and make it more polarizing. Fake coupons that were created to look like Starbucks was offering free coffee to people of color as an apology, were pushed out by multiple accounts across different social platforms. The result was an audience angry for Starbucks racist narrative and an audience mad and under the impression that Starbucks’ only solution to solving it was shockingly cavalier.


Not all disinformation campaigns arise out of a specific newsworthy event. Some can be larger social movements that target brands that fit under their narrative. Such is the case with ExxonMobil.

Many activists have been vocal about their views on climate change, fracking, and the oil industry. Their general sentiment is that fracking is bad for the environment and that oil and gas companies fall under this same umbrella. To support this movement, brands like Exxon have been targeted.

#ExxonKnew was a well-funded, multifaceted campaign active on multiple platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Reddit.

Disinformation campaigns attempted to push the narrative further in the public sphere by piggybacking on more mainstream conversations, like the ongoing climate change and fracking narrative, on social media. Artificially amplified attacks, hoaxes, and disinformation campaigns can “piggyback” on acute crises, complicating crisis management and reputation maintenance.

False information against Exxon

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