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Social Engineering: Media Manipulation

FEATURE / 04.10.18 / Chris Stephen

Okay, boys and girls, today we are going to get on the bus, Ms. Frizzle's magic school bus (by the way, fun fact: did you know that Ms. Frizzle's first name is Valerie?). Once onboard she will drop us off in the early 2000s. While there, we will be examining an old-school technique for media manipulation and how some of these sorts of tricks can still occur today. 

In the Internet's younger years, search engines were still trying to figure things out. How do you present relevant data when someone typed something into Google or, throwback Thursday: AskJeeves? In those days, Google used reasonably simple search algorithms to display data with what they believed to be the most sought-after information being closest to the top of the page (stack ranking). So if you wanted your website or content to appear at the top of the generic search, you had to do something to get it there. 

How Did You Get to the Top of Google 15 Years Ago? 

Enter, Google bombing. Google bombing took advantage of the algorithm Google put in place to push your site to the top of the generic search results (just below the advertisements). 

It worked by having multiple websites linking a keyword back to the site you wanted to see higher in the Google search results. A great example of this had numerous websites linking the phrase "miserable failure" to George W. Bush's biography. What happened then was anytime someone would type "miserable failure" into Google, they would see George W. Bush at the top of the results. Silly? Yes, but fairly harmless. In this particular case, the apparent motives were political.

However, this wasn't the only account of Google bombing. Search engine results for religious groups, civic organizations, and others were all affected. At one point, Google even had to put a message above search results talking about the problems of Google bombing and how the results may not be accurate. 

Here is one amusing example of a 'Google Bomb' that still works today - type "Find Chuck Norris" into the Google homepage and hit the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button. You'll be directed to Arran Schlosberg’s site, which is set up to look just like the Google Results page - with this great response to your search:

Eventually, to combat the issues of Google bombing, Google had to change the way their algorithm collected data and then presented the findings. 

What Changed in the Algorithm? 

Only Google knows. They tend not to share that data with anyone outside of their company.

Why is This important? 

Perception modification. If I can change a person's perception leveraging media manipulation, I can alter the course of their actions. To find out how to do that today, we have to get back on the bus and head home to 2018. Ms. Frizzle can drop us off at Twitter. 

Twitter is an interesting one when it comes to media manipulation. Their techniques used to present data are reasonably straightforward, but there are options to come in from the side, and other areas that are exploitable. But let's start with a simple tweet.

To understand the exploit capabilities that Twitter provides, the first thing we have to understand is the anatomy of a tweet (I’m going to refer to "tweet(s)" as a post(s) for the remainder of this article because I don't like the word tweet). 

Twitter gives me the following options when I create a post: 

- Text limit of 280 characters 
- A hashtag for context affiliation
- Ability to tag/address another user inside of a post
- Ability to add a maximum of four photos
- GIF inclusion
- Polling
- Geotagging

So How Can We Use these Options to Manipulate Someone's Online Behaviour? 

For that, let's create a simple tweet and track its capabilities: 

Post: "I recently picked up the latest EGO cordless mower at @HomeDepot. I have been thoroughly impressed with it, but I'm a little sad that I didn't wait because the new one is just on the horizon and I heard it has some insane upgrades. #Lawncare #buyersremorse." 
(Note: No pictures, gifs or polls, and the post is geotagged)

So what's happening here? What impulses did you immediately have after reading the post? Well, if all went according to plan (which it may not have), then the following events may have occurred. 

1. If you weren't aware of the product line EGO, you may have run a quick Internet search to see what it was. 
2. Next you would identify the company I purchased it from, because they are tagged in the post as "@HomeDepot." 
3. You may have then entered the keywords (EGO + Home Depot) into Google to check out the product range and pricing.
4. My tweet would have already clued you into the fact that there was a newer version on the horizon. That would probably cause you to pause the purchase and wait for ‘the next big thing.’ 
5. If you are sufficiently intrigued, your next stop may be the EGO company website to look for new product announcements and see how long of a wait you’re in for, or to check whether you can purchase it directly online and get it sooner.

In short, with one tweet I have generated your interest in a product that is not yet available.... or may not even exist at all.  

Ok, But That Seems Relatively Small. What's the Big Deal?

Well, let's take this a step further with a little more context. Say I wanted to make some money from a post rather than just promoting a product or a company. How would I do that? Let's take a look at another post option, in the context of a “pump and dump” scenario.

Post: "Hot tip: Just picked up 10,000 AGI coins at .19$. Their new #blockchain methodology is insane & my boy who works on the development project told me that they are scheduled to announce the next evolution in three weeks. #cryptocurrency #Crypto"
(Image included: something related to bitcoin).

For those in the know, most of this is nonsense, but my target isn't for those who are in the know. My target market for this post is the investor crowd. 

So, Only Your Followers Can See the Post. 

That is correct in the context of my Follower count, but I have another item in the post to help it to be seen: the hashtags. 

So, if a Twitter user searches for these hashtags, they see hashtag data sorted by the following: 

- Top (default view)
- Latest
- People
- Photos
- Videos
- News
- Broadcast

Since my manipulation account wouldn't have that many Followers yet, it wouldn't end up being included in the “Top” posts, but I would appear in the “Latest Posts” list as well as in the “Photos” section.

This is a good start, but I want to appear in the Top posts list (default view). I now need two things to make this happen: Likes and Retweets. 

How do You Get Likes and Retweets? 

Enter bots and “pay for retweet” services. Before I dive into the subject of bots on Twitter, I want to applaud Twitter on their efforts with regards to removing bots from their service and their moves to make the automation of account creation harder. Sadly, even though Twitter has made their best effort to stop this sort of activity, it still happens.

Because the bot option is still available, leveraging them for favoriting and retweeting my post will definitely increase its visibility. Then I can jump over to services like Fiverr to get my post reposted through the services there — to help increase the visibility even more. The goal being to end up on the Top (default view) of the search page. 

So, What's Next? 

Next thing we need to do is leverage Twitter's newer service called "Moments." Moments is a way to tie a bunch of posts together to create a semi-cohesive story alongside a user’s opinions.

Taking the data from the paid-for responses and upvoting each, bringing them into the Moment section to increase their visibility will also create a much more compelling argument. Then we do the same thing by having bots like/retweet the Moment to further increase its visibility. 

Now, let’s take this back to the original post. Remember, the target market for this post was people in the financial sector. To people in the financial market, an under-dollar investment really isn't that risky if done in moderation; the natural purchases combined with "buzz" should push the value of the coin up especially with the financial hot word "blockchain" included in the post.

Assume for a minute I did purchase the 10,000 AGI coins for .19$ —  that would mean my total investment in the coins was 1,900$. If I spent, let's say, 100$ for bot/fiverr services, my total investment was 2,000$. Let's say the coin's value goes up by a modest 10x, which would net me 18,000$. For a high-end increase of 50x then I would net 93,000$. After that I could dump the coins at a higher value once I meet my financial goal. 

This is a simple (though lengthy) example of a simple financial manipulation, but you can use your imagination on how this could be expanded to other demographics/subjects. 

My advice: after you read about something online, do your research. Never take something at face value/judge a book by its cover blah blah blah, you can pick your idiom here.

NOTE: This blog represents the opinions of the author only, and does not represent an official Cylance endorsement of any companies, services or persons mentioned herein. Cylance is not paid nor otherwise compensated in any way for any product/company/service mentioned in these blogs.

Chris Stephen

About Chris Stephen

Senior Sales Engineer at Cylance

Chris Stephen is a Senior Sales Engineer at Cylance. Chris has over a decade of experience in the IT field, from his initial startup where he designed end-phase punch management systems for commercial and residential builders, to his work at Apple, to his work in the medical industry. Chris is a 'Jack-of-all-trades' when it comes to IT.