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Story Killers

“Changing the course of elections is the primary mission of influence agencies”

Edouard, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, worked as a project manager for a digital communication agency for over ten years. The company offered traditional services to clients—such as election-campaign management or social-network monitoring to prevent a crisis—but also completed off-the-record services. It edited Wikipedia pages, created avatar accounts to promote a client or discredit an opponent, and placed articles in reputable media–all unofficially. Edouard agreed to describe, anonymously, a shadowy industry at the intersection of influence, lobbying, and communication, where almost anything goes.

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By Léa Peruchon

16 February 2023

The information shared in this interview, conducted in January 2023, has been verified through documents and other sources. When this was not possible, an annotation notifies the reader. The interview was conducted in French and translated into English; it has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you define yourself?

I am a former project manager of an international communication agency. I can barely describe the kind of agency I used to work for. Was it a communication agency, an influence agency, or a lobbying one? I don’t really know. It is like any other communication agency, with its creative, content, monitoring and press-relations departments. But it is also intelligence services with special operations. The kind of thing you can’t include in a written report for a client.

What main services does this business offer?

You meet any demand the customer has. In Europe, we usually deal with the CEOs of CAC 40 companies. In Africa – where the main mission of our agencies is to influence electoral campaigns or change the course of elections – we mostly deal with governments, presidencies, or ministries. However, we are hardly influencing the course of elections in African dictatorships, as they are mostly automatic re-elections. In this case, we would be influencing images, putting a positive light on the electoral campaign. Finally, there is also what we call “media intelligence”: knowing that something is being written on a client , meeting with the journalist who is investigating the subject, and warning the client there will be a crisis. Establish a plan on when and how to fight back. Either by diverting attention away from this matter or by discrediting the information.

By conducting some misinformation too?

We took the information that was of interest to us and disseminated it without mentioning the most embarrassing information. For example, we’ll manage to say that the worst bloodthirsty dictator is not so bad after all. We try to find positive things about him. We also try to emphasize the past of an opponent. It’s more manipulation than fake news.

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How does a manipulation campaign work?

There are several options, as it is always 360-degree communication. First, you must place articles. I have media that, for a few hundred euros , publish what I want. These aren’t big online sites, but they allow you to have a digital presence and do “policy advocacy” [Policy advocacy is promoting or defending people, an interest or an opinion]. Researchers, academics, even fake personalities can publish articles in [well-referenced websites] quite easily, and if you don’t have the means to check, you’re easily tricked.

We can also [hire] freelance journalists [paid per job] for example, who must be paid because, behind-the-scenes, they must convince their editor-in-chief [that this is a legitimate article]. A journalist doesn’t get paid as much as a lobbyist, so [you give] the dudes a small bill and it comes out. In the end, each journalist gets 3,000. [We could not independently verify these transactions].

You’ll always have guys you can give a bill or buy a meal. I remember that [in an African country ], they brought in newspaper and magazine bosses [in a resort] all costs covered for two weeks, to have them say good things about the country. [We could not independently verify the existence of this trip but sources said such offers are common in the industry.]

Otherwise, I use Getfluence, [a similar platform to “Boosterlink” or “publisuites,” which makes it easy for advertisers to publish sponsored content with media outlets]. There’s this loophole: some newspapers offer to publish articles that are not mentioned as sponsored. This is illegal.

(Getfluence director Marc de Zordo said each media outlet defines its criteria on whether to indicate if content is sponsored or not based on the legislation of the country in which they operate. “There is no common legislation,” he said. “According to its offer and country, each media defines the criteria, particularly in relation to the legislation.”)

 

What are the next steps once the information has been placed in a media outlet?

We need accounts on social networks. In concrete terms, when we arrive in a country, the first thing we buy is a hundred SIM cards and a hundred [burner] phones. Also new computers that you throw away at the end of the operation. This permits us to create fake accounts on social networks . It’s like when you create a series, a fiction, it must be as realistic as possible. We must be able to recount the life of the characters, their past, their personality. When it’s a small agency, it’s done in a rather sloppy way. If it’s well done, it’s the Israelis. If it’s done badly, they’re not Israelis.
With these fake accounts, we will go on Twitter for example, to invade the discussion space. We create a hashtag, which goes viral . And afterwards, we go to Wikipedia.

You were telling us that you could “do some Wikipedia”, that is to say, edit Wikipedia content on behalf of certain clients?

To create a Wikipedia page, I need solid articles [to edit a page, we must be able to source the information]. Then, I edit the page, depending on whether it’s positive about the clients or negative about the opponents . It’s the number one weapon of any agency because in the digital sector, [Wikipedia] is still the first hit that comes up on Google.

Most Internet users only look at the first page results of a search engine, perhaps the second. The challenge is to be present in the first results at any given moment. And we do this thanks to Wikipedia or what we call PBNs, Private Blog Networks. These are small sites that permit making backlinks , meaning the more links there are to an article, the stronger the article and higher it is on Google.

 

We know that Wikipedia is monitored and that we can’t write anything, how do you do it?

An agency is [usually] required to declare itself as a communications agency. It’s the internal rules of Wikipedia that forbid interventions on a page by anyone who has an interest in the figure he works for. But I don’t think you can attack an agency for messing up your encyclopedia.

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Google seems to be an essential cog of the machine?

Google is a tool that can be used quite easily and modified. Meaning, on the search engine you can delete links, modify them, move them up, move them down. I won’t venture into the relationship between legal and moral. But for example, we have worked for a lot of clients, including company directors, for large companies, that have had legal or family problems at some point. Take a boss who has a marital problem, for example. He just calls an agency specialized in deleting links to exploit the right to be forgotten. [See Part 6 of the Story Killers investigation here].

At the bottom of the first page results, it says “some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” This means that the person has had negative results about him or her deleted. Now, you can delete those results after three months if it is considered too approximate and inaccurate. It’s a fast-paced environment, faster than we are. You always have to be one step ahead.

 

You say that your agency often worked without contracts, but what are the standard rates in this field and for an influence operation?

Prices vary in the influence and communication sector between 20 and 50 000 € per month for the biggest contracts. [This sum matches the average market price, according to our investigation, and may vary depending on the services]. These are usually six-month renewable contracts, and no country works with the same agency for more than three years.

What do you take away from the years spent in this environment?

It’s complicated from a moral and principled point of view. You can’t say that Azerbaijan, or any other autocratic regime like it, is a democracy, but that’s what [the Azerbaijani clients] want. I’m not going to say that [what I did] was good. It’s just that once you’re inside, it’s much more complicated to discern. Once you get out of it, you say to yourself, “well, it wasn’t that great.”

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