FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues



Corporates facing the Propaganda Virus

Giles Trendle
9 July, 2002


The Internet is the perfect carrier of propaganda viruses. This type of 'virus' is a weapon of information warfare used by ideologically-motivated advocacy networks seeking to disrupt and even destroy the brand image, profitability and business continuity of targeted companies. Propaganda viruses will increasingly test a company's marketing and PR capabilities.

While Israeli tanks rumbled into the West Bank last April as part of Israel's so-called 'war on terror', the CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz spoke to an audience at a synagogue in Seattle. Schultz claimed that the Palestinians needed to do more to fight terrorism and that Jews faced a rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide. Little did Schultz know at the time that his words would be replicated in a blitz of e-mails forwarded around the world leading to websites calling for a boycott of his company.

The anti-Starbucks campaign began the day after Schultz's comments, when an e-mail was circulated within the newsgroup of a network of grassroots activists campaigning for Palestinian human rights. The e-mail reported Schultz's remarks and urged recipients to "let our dollars do the talking" by boycotting Starbucks and, furthermore, to propagate the message.

That initial e-mail was forwarded endlessly and spawned other e-mails railing against Schultz and Starbucks. The crux of the protest centred on the view that Schultz, in his comments, had equated criticism of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories with being anti-Semitic. The information war against Starbucks moved up a gear when several pro-Arab advocacy networks, campaigning for a boycott of Israeli goods, posted the Starbucks name and logo on the boycott lists on their websites.

One website went as far as to describe Schultz as an 'active Zionist', a particularly perilous allegation given that Starbucks has outlets in several Arab countries. The websites added information about Starbucks plans to open "dozens of stores" in Israel - another reason, in the minds of these webmasters, to boycott the coffee company.

The Starbucks case highlights how today's information revolution greatly increases the 'spreadability' of the propaganda virus. A propaganda virus might be defined as information, misinformation or misrepresentation about a company or brand that is proliferated by viral marketing techniques with the intention of causing customer disenchantment and a decline in sales. Just as a computer virus propagates itself by infecting programmes on a computer, a propaganda virus is information spread by advocates, initially over the internet, to 'infect' the perception of a consumer towards a certain product or brand. A propaganda virus can be followed by calls to picket and boycott corporate targets, giving them a real commercial sting in the tail.

Starbucks responded to this propaganda virus by issuing an official statement saying it was "unable to comment" on Schultz's remarks in the synagogue because, the company explained, "he was speaking as a private citizen". Starbucks then proceeded to comment on the remarks (sic) by clarifying that Schultz did not believe terrorism was representative of the Palestinian people and that he thought Israeli and Palestinian states should live together peacefully.

This response was a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. It was clearly not enough to placate the anger provoked by the original comments, since the Starbucks name remains on the boycott lists of the various websites.

Schultz is not the only CEO to step into a political minefield and thereby put his company into the firing line and effectively make it a target for propaganda viruses. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last April, Jeffrey Swartz, president and CEO of the Timberland Company, called on Israel to do a better job in getting across its point of view and suggested Israeli army soldiers be sent to the US to raise awareness among (and financial support from) American Jews. The article ended with a quote from Swartz: "The Godfather was wrong when he said this is nothing personal, it's just business. This is deeply personal."

Swartz's comments were angrily seized upon and e-mailed around the world and, very shortly, Timberland joined Starbucks as a new addition to the boycott lists on the websites of the pro-Arab advocacy networks.

Unlike Starbucks, the response of Timberland was to remain tight-lipped. This writer contacted Timberland with a set of questions on this issue. "Thanks for considering Timberland for your story on propaganda viruses," wrote back Robin Matchett, Manager of Corporate Communications for Timberland. "Unfortunately, we're not able to participate, but would be happy to consider other opportunities in the future."

The propaganda virus, as a highly communicable (and contagious) piece of information spread over the Internet, presents companies and their PR agents with a new challenge. By its very nature of being replicated via the nebulous world of cyberspace, a propaganda virus exists in a way that makes it difficult to detect or to quantify its scale of 'malignancy'. Moreover, it can 'cross-over' offline by also being disseminated on the street and among colleagues, friends and family.

Corporate statements of self-absolution may prove ineffective and only exacerbate the anger provoked in the first place. Ignoring the issue altogether may prove unwise as silence is too easily interpreted as corporate cowardice and existing or potential customers who receive the information are left to form their own conclusions.

In today's Internet age, where information can be spead like wildfire, any remarks - particularly relating to political issues - have the potential to sabotage corporate image within nanoseconds. The new phenomenon and potential of propaganda viruses spread over the Internet challenges companies to review potential commercial liabilities and informational vulnerabilities, and to re-assess their agility of response if (or when) they come under fire.