By, Helle Bank Jørgensen
A week before the start of COP28, an online video surfaces, showing the chair of a renowned energy firm delivering a scathing critique of climate change measures. “The future is coal. It’s oil. It’s natural gas,” the authoritative voice declares aggressively, “These climate initiatives? They are nothing but expensive distractions.”
With a dismissive wave captured in pixel-perfect detail, the clip concludes: “Let’s stop this charade of sustainability and focus on the real drivers of our economy.”
The video goes viral, sending shockwaves both through the business community and among environmental activists.
But there’s a catch. The video is entirely fabricated, a deepfake, a chilling example of artificial intelligence (AI) gone rogue.
The company in question is forced to shift its focus as it scrambles to deal with the bogus message and communicate the truth to the market, employees, and customers. And as everyone is distracted by the deep fake, the company could find itself even more exposed to bad actors in the form of a damaging cyber-attack.
There’s an irony in the situation. The firm has previously opted for “greenhushing”, in other words, choosing silence over transparency regarding its environmental initiatives. In doing so, it has inadvertently paved the way for damaging fabrications to take root.
Narratives like these underscore a stark reality: greenhushing is not merely an omission but a gateway to a realm where misinformation and disinformation can thrive unchecked, compromising the trust of stakeholders and the integrity of corporate governance. In the boardrooms, where strategies are discussed and futures are shaped, this is the unseen adversary that demands vigilance.
Misinformation, disinformation and deepfakes
It’s important to know the difference between misinformation, disinformation, and deepfakes. Misinformation is erroneous information spread inadvertently without malicious intent. On the other hand, disinformation is the intentional creation and propagation of falsehoods designed to mislead and harm individuals or entities, including businesses. A deepfake is fabricated audio or visual content that it convincingly depicts individuals saying or doing things they never actually said or did.
Philip Upton, a partner at PwC and a friend from my time there, cautions in a 2021 podcast that while any company can be harmed by disinformation, some are particularly vulnerable. High-profile CEOs, businesses involved in public transactions, or those experiencing rapid demand growth are prime targets. Every business, no matter how big or small, no matter where in the world it is, needs to be vigilant as disinformation campaigns become more sophisticated and pervasive.
A serious risk to your company’s reputation
As we navigate the digital era, every business can expect to encounter the dark side of technological advancement. AI, hailed as a beacon of innovation, can also serve as a tool for crafting deepfakes—sophisticated digital forgeries that blur the line between fact and fiction. These convincing fabrications extend far beyond political mischief into the corporate world, where realistic video forgeries of corporate executives can do serious damage to their own and their company’s reputations and businesses.
The phenomenon is not confined to rogue actors. Disinformation-as-a-Service (DaaS) has commoditized the spread of falsehoods, offering tailored packages designed to undermine corporate credibility. Providers in this dark marketplace can churn out custom content, from bogus articles to orchestrated social media campaigns, all aimed at manipulating public opinion and diminishing corporate reputations.
The business world has already felt the sting of such disinformation campaigns. Take the notorious example of the fake “clear parasite worm” that supposedly infiltrated Dasani bottled water and caused widespread panic. More recently, telecom providers have scrambled to respond to fabricated health scares surrounding 5G technology, while the Covid-19 pandemic was fertile ground for innumerable conspiracy theories about vaccines. These orchestrated attacks prove that no organization is impervious to the viral spread of disinformation. Such is the landscape of misinformation and disinformation: a treacherous terrain where the next assault by AI’s dark actors could be just one click away.
Greenhushing: the catalyst for exploitation
Greenhushing refers to the practice of companies deliberately not publicizing their sustainability goals and actions as a way of avoiding scrutiny. This trend is becoming alarmingly common due to the recent backlash against ESG. While most companies continue to pursue their risk-reduction and value-creation work on ESG and climate change, they are often not reporting it as openly as they did a few years ago.
This void leaves outsiders to draw their own conclusions, however ill-informed. It is also an open invitation to deepfakes to try and tarnish a company’s reputation and erode stakeholder trust. The sophistication of deepfake technology has reached a level where it can convincingly fabricate events, making it difficult for stakeholders and the public at large to distinguish between truth and lies. What’s more, as defences against disinformation improve, attackers find new ways to evade detection and spread their fabrications more effectively.
What the board can do
In the battle against the underbelly of artificial intelligence, the board’s role should be both protective and strategic. Corporate leaders must recognize the gravity of these digital threats and take decisive action.
Here are some recommendations for boards to consider:
- Decide if “green hushing” is the right strategy: Make time for a discussion and decide the pros and cons of not being open about the progress the company is making.
- Foster proactive communication: Make key stakeholders aware of the views of the board and leadership on sustainability and climate matters, and the reasons for opting for “green hushing”, or not.
- Appoint a commander in charge: A dedicated person can ensure transparent and consistent communication regarding the company’s sustainability efforts. He or she can communicate regularly with the board, work on mitigating risks, and provide a credible source of information. This will often require material data to be verified by a trusted third party.
- Establish a robust communication protocol: In the event of a deepfake crisis, a well-prepared plan with rapid response capabilities can prevent the escalation of misinformation and protect the company’s reputation.
- Invest in detection technology: Boards should advocate for investment in sophisticated technology capable of detecting deepfakes and other forms of synthetic media, enabling the company to identify and address fraudulent content quickly.
- Educate and train: Implement comprehensive training for all employees to recognize and understand the impact of false information and deepfakes. An informed workforce can act as the first defence against the spread of manipulated information.
- Enhance transparency: Promote regular, detailed disclosures about company practices and policies. Transparency not only builds trust with stakeholders but also serves as a deterrent against those who might seek to damage the company.
- Engage stakeholders: Cultivate a dialogue with stakeholders to reinforce the company’s commitment to authenticity and truth. Stakeholder engagement can also provide a supportive network to counteract the spread of disinformation.
- Develop strategic partnerships: Collaborate with other businesses, industry groups and regulatory bodies to set standards and best practices for combating misinformation and deepfakes.
- Legal and regulatory advocacy: Take an active role in advocating for more effective regulations and laws to counter the creation and dissemination of deepfakes, thus helping to establish a legal framework that deters such activities.
In navigating the complexities of the digital era, the future boardroom must be vigilant against the perils of misinformation, disinformation, and deepfakes. By implementing proactive communication strategies, investing in detection technology and fostering a culture of transparency, a board can protect its companies and position itself as a paragon of corporate integrity. It is incumbent upon the board to not only oversee robust response plans but also to ensure these are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Through such foresight and decisive action, boards can significantly mitigate the potential damage from digital threats, maintaining stakeholder trust and reinforcing the company’s reputation.
Boards must rise to the challenge with resolve, steering their organizations through these murky waters with a steadfast commitment to truth and corporate responsibility.Back To News & Views