Shouldn’t we all be fighting the fake world BEFORE ranting about fake news?

When British author Misha Glenny decided to open his book DarkMarket by examining how Detective Chris Dawson had to face pitiful situations to keep a cybercriminal in jail, he managed to draw all the lines that blurred digital laws in those eerie days. It seemed like Glenny was unfolding an 80’s plot, Stranger Things tribute style, but that specific bank fraud story took place in 2008 — less than ten years ago.

DarkMarket goes deeper into phishing scams, card fraudsters’ feasts and other prosperous cyberthieves activities, to finally throw some tear gas: banks spend hundreds of billions of dollars on cybersecurity, but there is no evidence they have enough well-trained, skilled professionals to tackle the situation — not today nor ten years ago. And Glenny’s “market” gets a little darker: none of the financial entities wants you to know how much (of your) money they lose to cybercrime every day. (That’s why the banking system usually pays for this kind of loss with an wondrous efficiency — compared to all the other services it provides, of course.)

Clearly, things are much different now. For the banks? Well, I don’t know about them, but last October, cybercriminals hijacked the entire online operation of a major South American institution — financial trades, clients passwords, credit card transactions etc — which means procedures got easier for someone.

Take Madison’s life story for example. Madison Nash — Walsh before she got married — was born on August 24, 1982. Her blood type is O+, her telephone number ends in 1735, which is ironic because these are the same four last numbers of her Visa credit card. She owns a Mac, works as a broadcast technician, and drives a 2003 Alfa Romeo. Madison is one of the 1,200 inhabitants of Lampeter Velfrey, a community in the county of Pembrokeshire, Wales. And I bet she would love to read Misha Glenny’s book if it wasn’t for one pivotal factor: she is not real.

Madison Nash’s profile was generated in less than 15 seconds, earlier this morning, by one of the many websites that provide this kind of service: I only had to choose her country/region (United Kingdom) from 31 options, and the origin of her name (British) from 37 alternatives, Klingon included (yes, like Star Trek Klingon). All the other stuff, including frivolity such as favorite color (purple), tropical zodiac (Virgo), and more sensible info, like a valid e-mail address and a fake credit card number, were given by this very committed online generator.

This Welsh fake young lady may not be able to rob a bank. Yet she can engage in a lot of other casual web activities, like reviewing a product on Amazon, subscribing to a YouTube channel, sharing a couple of news on Facebook (whether they’re fake or not), following a dozen of “digital influencers” on Twitter… only to list the most obvious ones. But the captivating question this raises is: how many Madisons would cause a real mess?

In 2014, a hefty click farm was exposed in China with 10,000 active phones ready to listen to your marketing prayers and boost your digital life as you wish: followers, likes, reviews… you name it, it’s your (fake) world. And if 10,000 don’t sound impressive enough, two weeks ago, VICE News reported a similar click farm busted in Thailand, with computers, phones and — grab your TI-84 — 350,000 SIM cards. I know what you’re thinking: “We’re immersed in a fake news rampage and I don’t need to believe Vice”. Got your back, pal. That’s why I’ll do a (really) quick lecture on how to perform your own Pulitzer award winning investigation:

  • Step 1: go to eBay.
  • Step 2: type "Twitter followers".

It doesn't matter where you are, it will be the first ad: 1,000 brand new Twitter followers (maybe they’re second-hand) that will cost you $6 (there’s a special offer of 10,000 for $19,99). And if your social addiction leans towards Instagram, 1,000 loyal “friends” will come a bit more expensive: $7,50. Facebook fans (as their “real” life counterparts) will require more work, and a broader budget. I’d say click “farmers” expect a good harvest this year.

Put simply, what the hell is a click farm? Consider the impact of this: a small office, three guys, ten computers, hundreds or thousands of phones and an obscene amount of SIM cards. This whole equipment will work along with that fake user generator, and there you go: 300,000 Madison Nash at anyone’s disposal.

Twitter followers on sale on eBay: "No Eggs, Extra Delivery!"

Naturally, nobody flies to the borders of Cambodia to hire this kind of service. And nobody’s nephew will be operating this clone army once the profiles are ready. The softcore version of the operation shows its face online, as some type of social media agency that eventually combines terms like “SEO”, “marketing” or “promotion” (it doesn’t even matter if the sentence makes any sense in the end). And, unlike the bank fraudsters, they’re not hiding. One of the most famous “agencies”, for example, displays the following statistics all over its homepage: “570,000 YouTube subscribers”, “3.5 million Facebook likes generated”, “240,000 Twitter followers”, among other “numbers that make us proud”, they say.

Since everyone chooses what to be proud of, let's proudly put this 240,000 fake people into some perspective. The 20 best seller products on Amazon's Electronic section have, on average, 17,000 reviews each. Most of them get between 1,000 and 6,000 reviews. Not even the most reviewed product has something close to 240,000 people talking about it — for better or for worse. If you prefer a dollar-sign context, take YouTube. Adding 240,000 fake subscribers — even from scratch — would lead any new channel to reach the top-30 in countries like Belgium, Norway or Denmark. According to the (not so reliable, I know) Social Blade prognosis, a top-30 YouTuber in these countries can make from $30,000 to $200,000 a year. And, remember, this is a one-click-farm scenario.

Katy Perry and her 100 million Twitter followers: only one third of them are real

Besides the money, the core value of our digital world has been ruthlessly undermined. Yelp, Foursquare, Rotten Tomatoes, Medium, Good Reads, TripAdvisor, IMDB — just to name a few — and, obviously, social media platforms, e-commerce, app stores, they’re all based on trust. It’s about real people validating a product, a movie, a restaurant, a couple of news — even validating other people — and us trusting them. Sorry, but “sock puppet” is an incredibly mild analogy.

Last week, Katy Perry became the first person to reach 100 million followers on Twitter, making her the happy owner of the most-followed profile of all-time. Apart from the fact that this has zero relevance, can it be categorized as fake news? Well, technically the story is true. The followers, however, not so much. According to DigitalSpy, only one third of Katy’s followers are genuine (but even this intel may carry some fake DNA itself).

Twitter doesn’t feel like chatting — judging by the vague answer on this subject: “Katy does indeed have 100 million followers”. Period. The same way Alphabet (Google) will hardly discuss YouTube’s fake viewers or subscribers. As it became clear in banks modus operandi these companies are willing to hand over a good deal of money to impostors so real people don’t spend too much time wondering.

S06E09: we all have watched that Homeland episode

Despite all the controversial decision related to publishing fake or unverified news, BuzzFeed ideated a good exercise when it pointed out the most resounding fake news of 2016 and how they echoed louder than the actual “real news”. BuzzFeed categorized them by engagement, which is not an absolute number (meaning one fake person posts a story, and if two real users share it, that exponentially amplifies the engagement), but still. They pulled out the 20 most shared inaccurate information in the US from February to April. And here’s where my corollary fits in: only four had more than 240,000 engagements on Facebook, which means our fictitious click farm would easily make it to that list whispering any news it wanted. From May to July, they collected 20 more fake stories and, again, 18 of them couldn’t match our 240,000 Madisons.

Rest assured: I also label fake news as a weapon of mass manipulation, and I do agree it’s essential, to debunk disinformation, to do a daily fact-checking, to explain deceptive posts. But I’m quite sure that every time someone rants about fake news and how the world will fall in disgrace because of it, Detective Chris Dawson, wherever he is now, digital-ghost Madison Nash, driving her non-existent Alfa Romeo, and even bot queen Katy Perry share the same laughter: you guys have no idea how virtual the rest of your reality is right now.




Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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Alexandre Botão

Alexandre Botão

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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