It’s both strange and challenging to see how the Internet has evolved to where you can’t necessarily even trust that someone is who they say they are online, in a multitude of areas.
I suppose this started with the earliest days of spam email and scams with the prince of Nigeria trying to swindle people out of their bank account numbers, which we’ve watched grow much more sophisticated to where today it’s common to get spam email from your friends and family – often when they haven’t even been compromised – because it’s easy enough for scammers to crawl the Internet and build relationships between email addresses and names that it finds on places like Facebook.
Sometimes I’ll open up my spam folder in Gmail just to see what kinds of spam it’s accumulated and it’s admittedly a little impressive to see their capabilities, though also scary because the whole idea of spam exists because some people don’t know better and will get sucked in by those types of tactics…
And so now we’re seeing this taken to new levels with “professional” trolls and people who purposely write misleading, sensationalized, or even just blatantly fake news stories for fun and profit – this article originally from the Washington Post was an interesting insight into the world of a couple of twenty-somethings who do just that, not out of any journalistic passion but simply because apparently it’s very easy work, the money is good without having to ever leave the couch, and frankly it’s also amusing to see people get riled up.
I’m sure we all have at least one or two friends who do that either on Facebook or even in real life, always playing the devil’s advocate just because they take pleasure from ruffling people’s feathers and they enjoy arguing senselessly. And it’s one thing when it’s that friend you knew from high school who was kind of always an asshole, but a lovable asshole at that, versus the complete stranger who has never met any of the people who are reading his “work” – they’re just a number to him, and much like a video game the goal is simply to get the high score and dup as many people as possible, damn the results.
…even if it influences lives and ultimately impacts an election…
It’s bad enough when actual organizations like the mainstream media miss the mark and report something that turns out being false or misleading, but when integrity isn’t even on the table because the entire aim is to deceive and win clicks, it presents a big problem because once again just like spam email, it wouldn’t exist if people knew better. But many, many of them don’t, and so we’ve got this rise of fake news stories written by anonymous tricksters that gain so many likes and shares that they rank higher than legitimate news, and ultimately these are the ideas that shape people’s opinions because they help to reinforce what they already want to believe and even though anyone with five minutes and a free thought can technically setup a webpage, there’s still a certain air of authority to read words in print when you’re not one of those people who knows how easy it is to publish online today.
Of course, anonymity has its uses when it comes to people writing controversial things without feeling repercussions – it’s just unfortunate that the exact same thing is happening here with a very negative intent instead of using anonymity in a positive manner. When becoming a different person is as easy as saving a random portrait from the Internet and posting it as the picture on your new profile on any social network, it makes it all the more challenging for the rest of us to know what’s real and what’s not when we can’t even trust pictures of people we know and love when we see them appear online.
Despite being the most difficult, is teaching users to be skeptical the best approach to fighting these fake identities online? Social networks to some extent can try to ban fake profiles if they set off the necessary red flags, but just like trying to pick which news sources are legit and which are bogus, depending on the activity it becomes an editorial effort that is going to get criticism from either direction.
Maybe the answer isn’t necessarily in re-educating the older generation, but more so in teaching new generations who have never lived when this unprecedented access to information good and bad wasn’t available how to consume it, and what to trust and what to avoid. The sites that we do trust also need to continue to fight these issues from their own angles, but there are always going to be scammers trying to take advantage and trolls looking to stir up controversy, so it’s vital that as information continues to grow by leaps and bounds that it doesn’t just become a useless minefield where one can literally find anything that they want, but with integrity absolutely lost in the revolution.
In a way, I think that the Age of Information will have to evolve in see figuring out how to identify and designate that trustworthy content because otherwise its own growing size will become its downfall, and nobody wants that! We can’t just scrap the whole thing and start Internet2 when this Internet gets so full of garbage that it becomes unusable… 😉