Fake Reviews, Woos & News: The Internet as a Vapid Wasteland
BY: KATE HARVESTON
Fake News, Woos and Reviews: How Close Are We to the Internet Becoming a Completely Vapid Wasteland?
The Internet may have its beginnings in military communications and university experiments, but the ‘net as we know it today is a social experiment. With next to zero ability to enforce rules governing who can post what, cyberspace is giving us a firsthand look at what humans do when left to their own devices.
While the Internet is an invaluable source of information, we’d be better off without most of what people post online. Sure, we’ve created a great forum for self-expression, but the misinformation people access online spreads like wildfire. Sometimes, that can have real consequences.
The Oldest Trick in the Paper
Let’s start with the most basic of misinformation: real fake news. Mind you, our current president — and wannabe dictator — likes to hear himself talk about how prominent media organizations are “fake news,” but we aren’t talking about CNN or Fox in this case.
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As long as there has been journalism, people have been making up news for profit. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that “yellow journalism” — a form of reporting that valued sensationalism and eye-catching headlines over factual information — started in the late 19th century. And if you think that sounds awfully close to what plagues us today, join the club.
Anyone with a background in the media will remind you how important it is to check facts, verify sources and — even when you’re sure you’ve got your story straight — have multiple bases of information. Online, however, you can pretty much create your reality by typing a search query into Google. Type in that the government is building weather-controlling satellites, and someone’s page about the dangers of a top-secret superweapon will almost certainly appear in your browser in fractions of a second. The web has become a haven for flat-Earth believers, Bigfoot hunters and people who think Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio.
These things might sound innocent, but when you combine that potential with the reach of a social media tool like Facebook, things get scary. Millions of users, many very young, are inundated with material that they can’t confirm is legitimate. It’s enough to force the social-media powerhouse to implement new filtering technologies.
“It Really Works!” — Fake Reviews
One thing the Internet is great for is researching a new product, or finding out if a model you’re getting ready to purchase stacks up well against the competition.
Just about every print publication in circulation has a web presence, but in addition to these, there are thousands of small, grassroots sites that claim to be the authority on everything from single-malt scotch to citronella candles.
While this wealth of information can be advantageous to the consumers of the world, it can also mislead people. Spreading false information about a product is illegal, no matter the medium. In a recent settlement, the FTC found a trampoline manufacturer had planted fake online reviews of its products to drive sales. The manufacturer created and disseminated its own review sites. The matter was settled but there’s no doubt people fall for these types of online scams every day.
Part of why this strategy is popular is the blurred lines vendors take advantage of. While the FTC was able to step in to right the trampoline case, a savvy Internet marketer can find welcome forums for half-truths that spread over social media with little encouragement. Always double-check product claims you read online.
The Dangers of Online Dating
You may want to think twice before swiping right — and not just because you can’t totally tell if that picture of your prospective Tinder match is photoshopped.
There is perhaps no more frightening venue for fakeness on the Internet than the world of online dating sites, where the entire point of the site is to arrange for real-life interactions. These sites do take precautions to protect the identities of those who log on, but in many instances, people willingly put themselves in danger without even knowing it, encouraged by the prospect of a new friend or significant other.
The anonymity that surrounds these sites as a protective measure for users is also a form of obfuscation for predators, and while it may be discomforting to think about, you can be certain not everyone on your dating app is who they say they are.
Often, fake accounts come in the form of bots trying to steer traffic to shady websites. There are, however, cases of rape and even murder that have taken place after people initially came into contact online. The relatively recent prominence of online dating as a forum has made gathering data difficult, but there has been a quantifiable increase in the number of cases reported where people have used apps to leverage nefarious ends since the birth of sites like Tinder and Grindr.
Don’t Expect Things to Change
Unfortunately, there’s no going back. The Internet provides far too many valuable services even to consider a world where we didn’t enjoy life connected to the Web, and online policing is still in its embryonic stages. The only way to ensure your protection online is to be smart about it.
Young people, in particular, are remarkably trusting of things they access online. Perhaps growing up with technology has desensitized them to the dangers that lurk on the other end of that fiber-optic cable.
Remember, the Internet is nothing more than a bunch of computers wired together. Would you walk into the home of someone you’d never met and take every document on their computer to be a work of fact? Not likely. Do your homework, check your sources and when in doubt, just remember the old adage: Don’t believe everything you read — especially when you’re reading it on a screen.