On the frontlines of the fake news war: Trojan horse tweets

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

A prominent senator, Matt Gaetz, and two other politicians retweet a photo of the famed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, with praise.

An outspoken vaccine naysayer, Naomi Wolf, tweets a photo of a well-known adult film actor presenting him as a doctor advising on the COVID-19 vaccine.

Ironically these errant retweeters have a history of accusing media of fake news.

So what’s behind these gaffes?

It’s a new tactic emerging on Twitter, a platform where any information, including fake news, can spread like wildfire. And the man behind both incidents isn’t a figure shrouded in mystery as you might think. He’s an investigative journalist for The Intercept, Ken Klippenstein, with a side hobby of pranking prominent accounts. Using a verified account, no less.

So how does it work? First, find a target with a clear agenda. Then provide them with user-generated content that supports that agenda and wait for them to bite. But the content is a trojan horse ― inside the enemy is waiting in silence.

A self-proclaimed patriot retweets an enemy of the state on Memorial Day. A vaccine naysayer that regularly casts doubt on scientific information presents an adult film actor as a reliable source of medical information.

Neither has vetted the source nor the veracity of the information. Their itchy trigger fingers, fueled by a desire to pursue their narrative, betray them, ultimately revealing them as the propagaters of “fake news” and, ultimately, hypocrites.

These incidents crystallize the current American zeitgeist: “gotcha” tactics, strong antagonism between political camps, and the itchy trigger fingers behind Twitter accounts ― a platform that moves at the speed of light.

Public relations was born out of the American democratic political process, which relies on swaying public opinion through ever evolving strategies and tactics. Trojan horse tweeting is just the latest development born in the skirmish of the social media wars.

Social media managers and PR professionals alike would be wise not to fall victim to the same tactics. That’s easily done. Just hold social media to the same standards of the PR profession: only relay information that you can verify and know who’s behind it.

Sounds simple, right? Make sure to remember it during your next tweet.

Navigating the Online Tower of Babel

Ever wondered why your family seems to have different information than you about important national news? It’s not just that the media they read are different — the way they access media may also be completely different to you.

First, please indulge me by answering a one-question survey: 


Before you take me to task for my stereotyping, according to the Pew Research Institute, these are the typical media consumption patterns by generation.

It should come as no surprise that you and your parents have different information or even attitudes toward the same news in light of how differently we consume news.

Such a stark generational difference begs the following questions:

  • Do people who get their news on social media get more biased information?
  • How many people actually follow news organizations on Twitter/ other social media? Do they read the articles linked, or just the headlines and reactions? How many source most of their news on social media from non-news users who might further spin the information?
  • How do impressions of the same news differ depending on where it is consumed? Is social media news more effective at causing action? Does news on traditional media lead to more contemplation, with print readers being most contemplative?

The Conversation, a not-for-profit media written by scholars and academics, identified three types of bias on social media:

  1. Bias in the brain
  • Preference for simpler information to avoid overload
  1. Social bias
  • Influence from peers on how we react to information
  1. Machine bias
  • Tendency of social platforms to promote high-engagement information

While social platforms pledge to crack down on “fake news” and critically misleading content, these three biases only show signs of growing.

Recent research by NewsGuard indicates that the amount and ratio of engagement on posts sourced from unreliable “red” sites is increasing in relation to that of reliable “green” sites. The 9 rating criteria, centered on transparency and credibility, are available here.

This may be caused by the election. Only time will tell.

But while many conclusions about bias of information on social media have been made generally, we have few public sources of thorough and specific examples of how information is bent. This area needs more rigorous investigation.


While engagement with untrustworthy content on social media is growing, It’s difficult to understand how each and every individual reacts to and, perhaps, spreads information. This comes down to what sources people trust. While many admit to sourcing their information from the internet and social media, what attitude do they have towards the different types? 

The Edelman Trust barometer regularly gauges public trust in government, business, various kinds of media, etc., across the world. This year, as many might have predicted, trust in information sources is at an all-time low.

It should come as no surprise that trust in each actor varies across party lines in the United States, as “division” has become the word of the day, mentioned both by Donald Trump in his election night victory speech in 2016 and by Joseph Biden in his recent inaugural speech.

Trust in journalists shows the largest trust gap of a staggering 42, almost half of the scale. As a PR professional whose work is based on the premise that the media is a preferred and trusted source of information, this stark contrast should make you think twice about how to craft a communications plan that can successfully reach both red and blue voters.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the rancour. “My employer” is more trusted across the world than businesses, government, the media, NGOs and anybody else. Perhaps this is thanks to the close relationship between employers and employees, which has grown more important during the pandemic.

To download the full Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report (pdf), click here. The article can be viewed on the Edelman website at https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer.

What it means for comms practitioners

Communications practitioners stand in the middle of the public and information sources, including but not limited to businesses, NGOs, politicians, governmental bodies, and more. We all have an anecdote or two about encountering a different reception than expected. 

Mine is from a digital ad campaign for a Japanese electronics maker. We ran ads for a contest to win a cutting-edge product, whose details, including product name, were not yet made public. The campaign earned a lot of engagement on Facebook ― but not the right kind. Comments like “this is a Chinese product that’s going to steal your data” and “this is a scam” stood out.

The client was a start up connected to a respected and long-established Japanese firm, yet because the company name was so unfamiliar and the product name was omitted, Facebook users filled in information blanks with anti-China rhetoric they had been hearing in the news to draw erroneous conclusions.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No matter how we responded in the comments, similar comments popped up throughout the campaign. ( Like Huawei, I can only imagine the drone manufacturer DJI has met with much worse after being included on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List late last year.) The lesson here is that contests are best held after you’ve established a little bit of awareness.

While my example is merely an instance of a digital campaign being tinged by popular paranoia, it is also a clear indicator of how a void of information and touchpoints will lead consumers to fill information gaps with what they “know” to be true. Even larger companies are affected by this.

This is just another reason supporting proactive and strategic communication ― they are crucial to even getting off on the right foot with most consumers.

Some think that misinterpretation of messaging is inevitable. But any proper communications strategy is based on research about audiences from primary and secondary sources that enable you to anticipate their biases and psychosocial tendencies to craft an effective message with minimal confusion. One example of this is Georgetown University’s “RACE model” for strategic communication:

Some have given up hope on proactive control of their image, namely Elon Musk, who famously disbanded his entire PR team last year, preferring to close the door to traditional media and instead tweet to the public directly. Well, that same man is now attempting to hire an “Energy Customer Support Specialist,” a metaphorical fire engine, i.e. someone who would tackle the problems that pop up around his social media presence on a regular basis. 

From the perspective of a comms professional, this is a rather ineffectual tactic as it attempts to sweep up messes in post that a properly functioning communications team could have prevented. But Elon is a serial entrepreneur at heart, so we wait on the sidelines and see if this new venture will end in success or confirm that the core of communications strategy is ultimately based on innate human traits, and as such not swayed largely by technological advancement.

I’d love to hear how you’ve been met with surprising reactions in your comms activities, how you source and vet information, your opinion on Musk’s decision, or anything else in the comments below.

There’s more to brand rivalries than meets the eye

Jab, jab, block, right hook — duck. Is it a boxing match?

No, it’s a communications campaign and you’ve got a front-row seat. For Americans, hearing companies snipe and jab at each other is a daily occurrence.

Verizon vs. AT&T, Apple vs. Microsoft (and vice versa), Wendy’s versus McDonald’s — the list is endless. As consumers, we may enjoy in some light schadenfreude as the highly produced and jam-packed advertisements flit by, but are they actually working?

The millennials have spoken

A quick survey of millennial friends (sorry- most of my friends are millennials) revealed that the answer is not so simple.

With such a wide array of views on brand rivalry, it’s surprising that companies are still choosing this technique. In recent years, Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, Nike vs. Adidas and McDonald’s vs. Burger King stand out in consumers’ memory.

What’s surprising is consumers recognize rivalries even among brands, such as Nike and Adidas who mostly have it out on the pitch, that avoid direct confrontation, in addition to the overt rivalries between social media provokers like Burger King and Chick-fil-A.

Burger King’s tweets have been gloves off, even offering to honor a discount promotion offered by McDonalds and lead the consumer to the closest Burger King instead.

If that’s not a good application of mapping software for brand rivalry, I don’t know what is.

But respondents’ opinions on what makes a convincing message are highly subjective. While some respondents preferred “data driven statements,” others liked “playful brand communication,” the cleverness of the campaign and “humbling acknowledgment of their rival.” Many agreed that the messages should be honest and give accurate insight about how competing products differ.

Survey: https://surveymonkey.com/results/SM-6LCK5ZPG7 (Respondents=15)

The takeaway from all of this is that any brand considering brand rivalry style of communication should make it appropriate for the TPO, their brand image and industry. Is it just me, or have we seen a drop in overt brand rivalry since the start of the pandemic?

It seems that there are bigger fish to fry in the advertising world.

Standard practice in the U.S. is tentatively adopted in Japan

Momotaro (Peach Boy) Goes to Devil Island by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)
Original Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Japanese Woodblock Print
Momotaro (Peach Boy) Goes to Devil Island

In Japan, comparative advertising has been historically avoided due to business practices. Overt comparison is distasteful and advertising agencies haven’t necessarily limited themselves to representing only only client in each industry, as is popular in the U.S. (Hence the creation of “conflict shops,” the creation of separate agency brands to give competing clients different representation)

In 1987, the Japan Fair Trade Commission loosened regulations and established three rules for comparative advertisements, thereby effectively acknowledging and allowing them in Japan.

While outright comparison is still largely taboo in Japanese culture, indirect comparison can be found if observing closely. One good example is the 2017 ad campaign for Pepsi (whom you might remember as launching the “Pepsi Challenge” during the Cola Wars period of 1970s -1980s) themed on the traditional fairy tale “Momotarou (Peach boy).”

It is often said that comparative advertisements are the weapon of the underdog — and in this case Pepsi embraced that image.

Momotarou is a boy born from a peach who has adventures with various animals until finally visiting demon island and slaying the powerful demon. While tapping into the image of Pepsi as a scruffy underdog (Momotarou) the 5-TV-commercial series drums up the viewer’s sense of righteousness and excitement with movie-like production values and the actor Shun Oguri.

Though Coca Cola never enters the picture directly, anyone with prior knowledge of the Momotarou legend and the red demon defeated in the end will have no difficulty connecting this ad campaign to the battle in the real-world soda industry.

Pepsi took it a step further by making the commercial itself “user generated content” by casting Pepsi drinkers in the final episode.

The success of this commercial can be attributed to its incorporation of the three elements of successful brand rivalry (attack ad) content and adaption to Japanese communication culture: high context, low (direct) confrontation.

Source: Slideshare by Dirk Herbert, Chief Strategy Officer for Dentsu Aegis Network U.S.

Does brand rivalry really exist in Japan?

During a short presentation on U.S. brand rivalry, Japanese PR experts in my professional circle agreed that indeed the brand rivalries of the U.S. were a form of communication in and of themselves, effective at leaving strong impressions. But when it came to Japanese brands, brand rivalry is an unpopular style, they emphasized

Even comparative advertisement, as noted above, wasn’t clearly allowed until 1987, after so-called “external pressure” 外圧 from foreign brands looking to apply the technique to the Japanese market.

But is it really true that Japanese brands don’t leverage antagonism to make their own brands shine? I posed the question to my Japanese colleagues.

Example 1: In-group rivalry

Best exemplified by idol groups like AKB48, Nogizaka 46 and Kanjani 8, idol groups are the perfect place for building engagement between fans via the rivalry of members. AKB48 and Nogizaka 46 perfect this by holding annual “elections” where “centers” (leaderes) are elected, resulting in tearful and grateful acceptance speeches.

Example 2: Corporate monologue

Unlike dialogues in Western culture, Japanese debates are traditionally a long monologue in which the speaker expresses a series of opinions, explains Professor Yasushi Ogasawara of Meiji University.

Certain types of advertisements by Japanese companies can be categorized as this monologue-type of debate. An example from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun:

Advertisement by Iwatani Corporation published in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun calling on readers to move the world with hydrogen.

In this example, advertiser Iwatani asks the reader to question if the human race has the energy to power the next 100 years, then espouses the benefits of hydrogen: it doesn’t dry up, it can be used to power cars and send people to the moon, etc. It is a monologue against society’s current energy choices.

Example 3: Domestically producedappeal

The Japanese consumer considers “made in Japan” to be a guarantee of quality, and for no small reason. Standards for quality are high in Japan, and Japanese manufacturers work hard to meet them. As more imported goods, especially food, enters the Japanese market, Japanese manufacturers have to fight off foreign brands sold at cheaper prices.

One standard approach is the “made in Japan” appeal. Take for example, this advertisement created by Japan Agriculture (JA), the huge cooperative that buys and helps distribute the products of small-scale farmers and other food producers. (For more about how JA works, see this great blog post on Hackerfarm)

It superimposes a white monologue of text over a sukiyaki pot filled with presumably domestic ingredients. A summary translation of the text follows.

Japanese people tend to purchase domestic only when they are worried for their safety

Food problems are prominent in the news now. Yet while you might check production area from time to time, most of the time you are probably purchasing the cheapest choice, imported from abroad. Actually, more than half of our food is imported from abroad. The more we choose imported food, the more our food self-sufficiency rate drops. To prevent this problem, we all need to purchase more domestic ingredients — after all, Japan is blessed with the environment to grow many different delicious ingredients. JA Group will continue to strive to support local farming and communities so that it can bring safe domestic ingredients to consumers.”

My Japanese colleagues were put aback by this example. “It’s just encouraging consumers to support their own country’s products — it’s not necessarily nationalistic or rivalry,” one man commented.

But look closely, and you can see how the advertisement lays out the pros and cons of the products on both sides of the dichotomy of domestic v. foreign, while also calling on the three key elements for a good attack ad: rational, emotional, and cultural. Sure, the ad doesn’t include an overt comparison of any product in particular, but it does acknowledge the antagonism of domestic and foreign-produced products, while encouraging the false impression that all foreign-produced products are less safe than those that are domestic-produced.

Ad campaigns and messaging plans are merely an extension of the varied rhetorical devices developed over centuries of human interaction, taking advantage of the cultural, emotional and rational triggers inherent to us humans. Take a closer look at the messaging around you and you’ll find there is more than meets the eye.

Feel free to comment or message me with your realizations and thoughts about ads, messaging, and rhetorical tactics in the public sphere!

So you’ve mastered Instagram? Gaga, Selena, and John have some tips for you

Say what you like, Instagram has reached unforeseen heights in terms of users and user engagement. Its users make up nearly 13% of the world’s population. You might scrunch your nose at the exorbitant amounts earned by influencers such as Kim Kardashian and others, but Instagram’s influence over a certain demographic is undeniable.

But even as the platform matures, its influencers aren’t necessarily resting on their laurels. Take Selena Gomez, queen of the millennial pop ballad. Her most recent music video release “Past Life” is a cute nod to the “new normal.” Posted on Instagram, and filmed on Instagram Live, the video simultaneously shows us even celebrities are “working from home” while also giving fans a prominent part in the production.

Who do you keep looking at off screen, Selena? What’s that just out your window, Trevor?

You’d be right to think the audio is overlayed from a professional recording session. Neither Instagram Live, Zoom or other live streaming services can completely eliminate lag.

Jacob Collier, hailed as a multi-instrumentalist wunderkind, has gained some attention lately for seemingly having devised a work-around for lag when live streaming. Apparently this is a sort of holy grail for the music industry as it struggles to find ways to reproduce the live experience digitally.

You know how awkward it is when you talk over someone due to lag? Well imagine that on a mega-celebrity diva scale. Yeah, some innovation is needed. Especially as Jacob Collier is conducting weekly Instagram Live sessions. That would get awkward very quickly.

But that’s not all. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez recently opened up their Instagram accounts for takeovers by anti-racist leaders and organizations.

While some might doubt the sincerity of their motivations, these celebrities have given control of a very powerful part of their personal brand over to a cause they believe in. That, in and of itself, means something.

At the end of the day, social media is a necessary evil, becoming more and more necessary as we are are forced to stay distant from each other. Any smart communicator would be wise to keep an eye on social media innovators, and hey, maybe even make some bold moves of your own.

*Note: I’m sure I’ve missed some great examples of innovative social media use. Feel free to tip me off via my contact page. I’m always looking for more inspiration.