facing the Propaganda Virus
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
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
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
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
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
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.