Some deep thoughts based on listening to an episode of On the Media from January titled “Everything is Fake”.
The first couple of segments aren’t a big surprise. Politicians who go looking for border photo ops in Texas will visit the things that back up their story about the border, and they’ll say things about the border in that town that aren’t actually true about that town, in this case McAllen, TX, and in the second segment of course, that the current President lies more often than other politicians, especially when he starts to ad-lib.
Neither of those things is telling us anything we didn’t already know. But the last two segments get into things that I want to spend more time talking about because they get into something we see a growing concern about, even as the problem continues to get larger and larger, and that is how much of the internet is fake?
After listening to those segments, and doing some reading, as well as testing, of my own, I’m afraid to say the answer to that question is:
Almost all of it.
Now that is not to say there aren’t any pockets of “real” online. There are. There are real groups of people connecting in real ways, having real conversations, and learning real things. That has always happened, and I believe it will continue for as long as we have this communication tool.
But it’s becoming a smaller part of the overall “online experience” for a lot of us, as it gets drowned out by what isn’t real. And I don’t just mean fake news, or fake websites. We’re talking fake websites running fake ads and generating fake clicks on those ads- level of not real. An entire infrastructure of non-reality designed to give the appearance of being real. Let me break that down a bit for you, because it all started out innocently enough.
- In the early days, you created a website. You tried to get indexed by Yahoo/Google or whatever search engines were around at the time so that when people searched for that topic on that search engine, they would find your site. In order to monetize that, or even just to get it to pay for itself, you sold advertising on the site.
- Obviously, the more people who came to your site, the more you could charge for advertising. This has always been true, but online it spawned the first fakes. This started with the SEO scams and fake traffic. Using bogus information to rank higher in the search results to get more people to your site. Or, at least the appearance of more people on your site. This, to me, is where things started to get “fake”. The web became a race for attention, not a marketplace of ideas. This is where we saw content scrapers, websites that were nothing more than scraped posts and article stolen from other sites, or just websites claiming to be educational that were clearly just spamming links to commercial sites.
- Within this race for attention, we began to see click-bait headlines, where the more outrageous the headline, the better.
- Side note here, yesterday when news broke about the college admission bribery and cheating arrests, I saw a number of people claiming the fact that the headlines were only about the two Hollywood actresses being charged was an example of male privilege. No, it was an example of click-baiting the headline. No one is going to read/share a story that reads “Gordon Caplan Charged with Fraud”. This is how the media works in 2019, it’s about what headline gets the most attention. Period.
- Then came social media. This “democratized” the whole process. Now anyone could create an account and spread any message they wanted to, without even having to bother with creating a website. (Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, and Movable Type, among others, had already democratized the website/blog creation area, but MySpace, etc. made it easy to now have an online presence by doing nothing more than signing up) But, we lost sight of one important fact in this new social media age, and that was that all of this was still a fight for attention, and ad dollars.
- The social media platforms had one goal, get people to stay on their platform. They started with connecting you to people you know. Gave you a place to chat, share messages, etc. Then a place to share news articles, and to find other people with similar interests who you don’t already know, and gave you a place to meet them. Then they watched you. They learned what you liked, what you paid attention to, who you paid attention to, and it kept right on programming that into the platform. All designed to get you to stay. They especially noticed what made you angry, and outraged, because that turned out to be a great way to get you to stay. Show you something totally outrageous, and you’d get mad, and comment on it, then share it, and continue to comment on that with your friends, and on and on.
- As a side benefit to all that watching and learning, they were also developing a very detailed profile of its users too, one that made advertising on their platform more attractive than generic web advertising, because they could provide the exact target audience an advertiser would want.
- Pretty soon, every website wanted in on this, so they created accounts and partnered up with the sites to track their users, and learn more about what got them to “click” and to stay on their websites, etc. The race was on.
- Eventually, a large number of people figured out that it was easy to create outrage, so easy in fact that the thing being shared didn’t even have to be true. In fact, a good juicy conspiracy theory was gold. It hit all the attention buttons. Outrage, the sense of being in on the secret (superiority), a group to identify with, and interact with. Really, an advertiser’s dream audience. But first, you had to have the group these people could belong to. So, let’s create fake people. Let’s program their profiles to automatically share/retweet and even interact with other profiles online, and let’s make those too while we’re at it, the ones who we’ll argue with, to “prove” our superiority, etc.
- Eventually, we are at a point where so much of that noise is fake that we can’t trust anything anymore. But we still do, as long as it’s on our “side”. It’s that other side that does all the dirty tricks. (Seriously, go listen to the interview with Matt Osborne about the false flag operation in the Alabama Senate race, and how smarmy he is about the whole thing. It’s a classic, “it’s different when we do it” rationalization.)
In 2019, what we need to realize is that it takes very little to create a false identity online. It’s not against the law to not be who you say you are online, and frankly, I wouldn’t want it to be. Anonymity is very important to me, as I know plenty of people who have valid reasons to remain anonymous. But, that tool can, and is, used for nefarious purposes. It’s ridiculously easy to create not just a fake profile, but hundreds of them, all fans of a fake website, that has scripts running constantly to give the appearance of traffic to a site that is entirely made up of false or stolen information, that is used to display some level of “influence” that can be sold, or used to actually influence people in how to vote, how to act, etc.
I don’t know that there’s a ton we can do about it legally. But we can all be a lot more skeptical. Repeat, A LOT MORE SKEPTICAL!!!!
Also, we can choose to be real. To interact with other real people. When we are online, and someone disagrees with us, it’s easy to dehumanize them, it’s become even easier now to assume they aren’t even a real person. That’s not necessarily a good way to go through life.
On the other hand, as we become more and more skeptical, the same players that are watching and learning about us will see that as well. If I know that the people I’m trying to influence are very likely to not trust certain types or sources of information, it doesn’t take much to “tip” them in that direction, or plant misinformation designed to make you more skeptical about something that is actually true. So when I say we need to be more skeptical, it’s really not even that simple. What we really should be asking ourselves on social media is not just whether this is true, but also why am I seeing it in this position?
Who decided to show me this? Why? How is it designed to make me act, or grab my attention? Do I actually want to give it my attention or am I only paying attention to it because “it’s there”.
Throughout history, media outlets have been battling for attention. Always trying to get more readers, more listeners, more viewers. That hasn’t changed. The technology has, and the ways in which they learn about us have gotten much more detailed and involved, but in the end it’s all about manipulation. Once upon a time the local papers would tilt the news to get you to both buy their paper, and think the way they do so you continue to buy their paper, and vote for their candidates, who treated them well once in office.. That motivation continues to drive much of what we see online. It’s all about manipulation, and the only way to fight that is to know it when it’s happening, and refuse to be manipulated.
Of course, that’s easier said than done when there’s an outrageous story to growl about, and people to judge, even if it’s not accurate.
They know that about us too. You can be outraged by that fact. Just don’t be surprised.