NFL Controversy Threatens Sponsors and Teams with Fake News and Cyber Attacks

The red line has been drawn. There seems to be no middle ground in the NFL-Anthem  controversy. And where there is controversy, there is Twitter. And where there is Twitter, there are trolls, hackers, and fake news generators.

The Washington Post has already echoed comments by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) claiming that Russian trolls are “hash-tagging out ‘take a knee’ and also hash-tagging out ‘Boycott NFL’ ”. Lankford is a member of the Intelligence Committee so his remarks can’t be casually set aside. He’s right in asserting that Russian trolls like to ramp up controversy in the U.S. to either detract from other issues or simply to muddy the political waters and make the U.S. look bad. However, he is wrong in asserting that all such sites are Russian-based. In fact, #BoycotNFL seems legitimate. There are numerous Twitter accounts being formed in support of both sides in this debate, but, as of this writing, the anti-NFL sites have an overwhelming edge. Are some of these accounts fake? Probably, and it is probably in the range of 20-30%, if not more, but that still gives these anti-protest sites a decisive edge.

The official NFL Twitter account is, for the most part, acting like it’s just business as usual. The only exception being an anemic tweet on the Cowboys-Cardinals game, stating that the two teams, “shared a moment of unity on the field.” The tweet received far more criticism than support. Even tweets asking fans to vote for the “Air Player of the Week” received responses like, “Does it matter anymore?”

So, in this time of controversy, the fake news squad is bound to step in. Monetizing controversy is what fake news is all about. Fake news actors depend on clicks to get paid. They don’t really care if the news is fake or not as long as they get people clicking on it. They thrive on controversy so be careful of what news you click on, it may not be real, although it can often be designed to look like it is.

For example, a recent news story claimed that Budweiser had cancelled its advertising support for the NFL. The story was not true. However, when I visited the @budweiser site on Twitter, here is what I found.

bud twit

Seems suspicious to me, even though it is a verified account (note the blue check). Has the account been hacked? Well, either it has or Anheuser-Busch has made a novice marketing mistake by not claiming the @budweiser account for their own. The reason I believe it was purposely taken over can be seen in the link it gives to “budwesierUSA”. There is an official site called budweiserUSA but there is no site as the one they list. This seems like a clear attempt to try to legitimize a fake site. But why?

It’s possible that I stumbled upon this site before it could do what it is designed to do; tweet fake news. That said, a link to this fake site has already appeared in a recent Anheuser-Busch retweet.

anheuser ad

Checking the archives for this site shows that all references to it now point to the new fake site. This means that it was, at one time, a legitimate site associated with Budweiser. All tweets from this account, however, have been deleted. It is, therefore, ready to be deployed for nefarious purposes.

Have you seen the following news flash?

goodell resigns

Probably not, because I just made it up. I did have some help from a website called Break Your Own News, which gives you an easy template to work with. Not only that, you can distribute your news immediately as links to Facebook and Twitter are conveniently placed below your creation. Actually, there are many sites that will help in the dissemination of false news. I can almost guarantee fake news will proliferate. For example, did Michael Bennett of the Seahawks really burn the American flag as has been reported on some sites?

bennett flag

Actually, no. The picture was constructed from a picture of Michael Bennett doing a post game victory dance. Yeah, I’m not sure which one is more embarrassing.

bennett dance

It will also be just a matter of time before sponsors feel the brunt of this wrath in the form of hacks that will likely take the form of DDoS attacks. In other words, official NFL sponsor sites will be knocked offline by having their servers overwhelmed by requests. This could be very costly for these firms. It will take a while for hackers to organize such attacks, but they are looming. I say this because I have never seen such a tirade of abuse hitting these sponsors. (Note: Just after writing the above, the following story surfaced. “Anheuser Busch’s consumer help line temporarily went down Friday afternoon. A company representative says there was a high volume of calls from a social media campaign.”… Didn’t I tell you?)

But does it matter in the long run? Most sponsors are either keeping silent or voicing platitudes that try to put them into some middle-of-the-road position. Unfortunately, in this controversy, there really is no middle-of-the-road position. Most are hoping that the storm will blow over, as it usually does. One writer on market investing sweeps aside these initial protests. “Pro football is our nation’s most popular sport. I’m supposed to believe that Americans will tune out altogether and boycott NFL sponsors? Yeah, right!” This attitude seems to be flying in the face of recent polls like the one below from Yahoo Finance.

yahoo poll

I suspect the investment writer is only partially correct in his assessment of the climate surrounding this controversy. Fans may or may not continue to view games, but they are more likely to view them on TV. Some will not forget the protests and may make an effort to stop supporting NFL sponsors. Others will do so only temporarily. But these protests are likely to flare up again the next time an incident occurs that hints at an unjustified police action against a member of a minority group. If the time between such cycles decreases, sponsors could, indeed, be hurt by repeated boycotts, hacks, and fake news. It looks like tough times ahead for the NFL and its sponsors.

 

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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