In May, several French and German social media influencers received a strange proposal.
A London-based public relations agency wanted to pay them to promote messages on behalf of a client. A polished three-page document detailed what to say and on which platforms to say it.
But it asked the influencers to push not beauty products or vacation packages, as is typical, but falsehoods tarring Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. Stranger still, the agency, Fazze, claimed a London address where there is no evidence any such company exists.
The scheme appears to be part of a secretive industry that security analysts and U.S. officials say is exploding in scale: disinformation for hire.
Private firms, straddling traditional marketing and the shadow world of geopolitical influence operations, are selling services once conducted principally by intelligence agencies.
“Disinfo-for-hire actors being employed by government or government-adjacent actors is growing and serious,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, calling it “a boom industry.”
For-hire disinformation, though only sometimes effective, is growing more sophisticated as practitioners iterate and learn. Experts say it is becoming more common in every part of the world, outpacing operations conducted directly by governments.
The trend emerged after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, experts say. Cambridge, a political consulting firm linked to members of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was found to have harvested data on millions of Facebook users.
Cambridge used its data to target hyperspecific audiences with tailored messages. It tested what resonated by tracking likes and shares.
The episode taught a generation of consultants and opportunists that there was big money in social media marketing for political causes, all disguised as organic activity.
Some newcomers eventually reached the same conclusion as Russian operatives had in 2016: Disinformation performs especially well on social platforms.
At the same time, backlash to Russia’s influence-peddling appeared to have left governments wary of being caught — while also demonstrating the power of such operations.
“There is, unfortunately, a huge market demand for disinformation,” Brookie said, “and a lot of places across the ecosystem that are more than willing to fill that demand.”