The movie with just a few kids taking down a huge evil credit card company on laptops in their parent's basements is over. These days, major companies and governments enlist armies of people to do everything from influencing public opinion about products to changing the course of major election results. Instead of cyber wars that leave companies being hacked for industry secrets and bank accounts emptied, there's a new threat to revenue streams and winning an election and it's the sheer overload of misdirection and false information that is taking over the Internet and Social Media,
If you feel tired after a few minutes of browsing the Internet to stay up on current events, there's a reason for that... What you often read is tailored to suit a purpose rather than a fair and balanced accounting of facts or events. Facebook recently announced that several propaganda accounts linked to the last presidential election in the US were uncovered as paying for ads to push negative stories about candidates. Even more interference of the same kind was uncovered during France's election cycle.
I know what you're thinking... Ahh, here's another editorial about "Fake News" or a "tin foil hat" conspiracy, which it may be, if you believe that people are inherently good and well behaved, but these days, truth is subjective, based on cultural, economic, and social alignment of individuals. For example, decisions on what clothing brand to support (which suppliers are most profitable) are based on social media presence, and support for the brands by celebrities and public people. Companies frequently "sponsor" sports players, meaning that they pay them as brand representatives and give them complimentary gear to wear during photo opportunities. These days, the same companies pay celebrities to tweet about their products in subtle ways, without you knowing that their posts are actually covert marketing opportunities.
Now what would you say if I said the game has now gone way beyond covert marketing opportunities? With tools like Yelp, and customer reviews on retail sites, many companies have been forced to defend their brands from harsh criticism. Instead of taking the opportunity to improve products based on the feedback, many companies hire other companies to create audiences that socially counter-act public criticism online. There are companies dedicated to setting up ad-hoc warehouses of people that can run an unlimited number of computers and devices to create online posts, to influence customer surveys, troll competitors and people, and do many other things, like even creating fake buzz about a product prior to it's launch.
Companies, politicians, even criminals, and many others have found that influencing public opinion in this new manner is a game-changing influence on outcomes when dealing with regular challenges they face. An industry referred to currently as "click farming"(needs a more accurate title, but hey, it's still a new concept) is growing into a viable financial business for people who don't really care about the impacts to factual reporting and validity of public information.
This is how good things become corrupted over time... This is also why we can't have nice things... The Internet was originally intended to be a method of sharing information across networks to help solve problems,and to allow people to communicate more effectively across longer distances. Many good things like Reddit, Skype, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter have shown great utility in terms of documenting truth, and facilitating communication during crisis, and even for making average people into new celebrities.
The problem arises when these same Social Media tools are used for spreading negative, misleading or made-up facts, and false information in order to change public perception to suit a particular goal. Even worse is when companies are enlisted to create click farms of people to inflate views on a popular artist's YouTube channel, pay radio stations for fixed airplay, and then later on the artist wins a Grammy because the artist is actually related to one of their chief financiers. The practice known as "payola" has been around for ages as well in the music industry without many knowing about it. Payola has proven to be low on the scale of injury to public health, we survived listening to ChumbaWumba, McHammer, and Vanilla Ice, and made it through to times without them on a continual radio loop. Actually these days I prefer to carry my own personal music collection with me on my phone, so that I don't have to listen to the radio and thus am rarely subject to payola's influence (when I go to the grocery store).
The process of finding accurate and factual information becomes a much more painful and costly process to us, as individuals, when we consider how click farms influence political elections, government agendas, scientific studies, consumer reviews, product safety, and many more things we purchase and rely on in life.
I had posted a while back, that Reddit would overtake social media in terms of cultural significance on the Internet and it has... More recently though, the trend of Reddit has grown towards posts that solely generate upvotes. In case you aren't already aware, Reddit lets users create any post, and then submit them to the public, once the posts are made, post viewers can elect to "upvote" or "downvote" those posts which move the posts correspondingly upwards or downwards in rank. Posts on Reddit which are upvoted by many users often achieve better positioning for readership and comments as the voting system is intended to be an indicator of the relevance or favor-ability of posts submitted by (supposedly) normal people.
As with many modern Internet tools, they thrive and exists as undiscovered gems of productivity. Only some get found and exposed to much larger scale audiences. After they get exposed to those larger audiences they often are subject to hijack or corruption as a result of their popularity by people and companies desperate for popularity or financial enrichment of their own. In the modern Internet landscape, the corruption test is something Internet tool developers need to be aware of, and they need to constantly monitor and counteract attempts to corrupt their tools. As Reddit grew, many accounts grew in credibility because they had made several posts over time that accrued several upvote or "karma" points.
Companies and individuals soon took notice of Reddit's ability to influence public opinion of their products, both in negative and positive ways, which also have direct financial impacts to sales and law suits. Companies realized that when a user makes a complaint about their product, they could simply use accounts to contradict the individuals making claims to "drown them out" by downvoting them, and by simply posting multiple positive comments or disagreements with the poster in response to original posts. For example, a user makes a post about how they bought a new car, and had to take it back to the dealer multiple times for the same issue - When you open the thread to read more, if you see multiple posts of people who bought the same car without problems, and multiple posts disagreeing with the original poster's methods of handling the issue, it's way too easy to assume the original poster with the car trouble is an isolated case, and that the car is indeed reliable because of all of the contradictory testimony, when in truth, the original poster is the only one who actually bought the car, and the positive reviewers may well be posters from a click farm in Bangladesh, The US, Russia, or China, hired by the car manufacturer to defend it's reputation.
[An example of a click farm in China]
The above example highlights how public perception can be changed, and actually twisted to discourage consumers from expressing their views online. The same kinds of tactics can be used not just on Reddit, but on many other sites to invalidate meaningful concerns and warnings about consumer products. The individuals that set up these click farm operations are savvy at bouncing their locations around the world by spoofing IP addresses, and devices used to mimic valid Internet users. Most importantly, the costs of laborers to conduct click farm activity is extremely low because it is not a highly technical skill, and it can be conducted from anywhere in the world.
[More video supporting this discussion]
Now take a moment to think about how that one example can be applied to truthful and/or false comments about a politician, a bank, or even yourself if you ever (God forbid) end up on the news. These methods can be applied to almost any social media platform that allows commenting or surveys. Click Farms can potentially fabricate a story and then bolster it with fake opinions, upvotes, fake blogs sites, and even print campaigns. Revenue generated from creating product buzz through these methods is soaring when companies and individuals apply these methods, with no end in sight. The solution is simple, yet complex.It's up to tool providers to counteract these methods by implementing better ways of preventing click farms from corrupting their tools. Tools like CAPTCHA were invented to prevent automated systems from flooding online sites, new methods should be created to authenticate and validate users beyond a simple user name and password, but those methods must also ensure privacy and anonymity when the cases are prescribed. We should make our posts less about promotion of companies and specific products or people and more about the experiences that are best because of specific products. We should reject the large-scale manipulation of product and people marketing and return to public communication and debate, creating thoughts and ideas can be supplemented through using the Internet, but most often, communication about important issues should perhaps still be done face-to face applying scientific method, polling, and fact-based debates in live settings, where it's much harder to fabricate facts and create false public perceptions.
We should hold individuals within companies publicly responsible for trust violations of this kind as well. Because the issue is often complex, and offenses are veiled, we should not simply ignore violations of public trust for popularity and money-making.
Most importantly, we need to reaffirm our individual stance on ethical balance on a world-wide corporate and political level, and hold others and ourselves to those standards. If news media and the public holds feet to the fire, and never forgets incidences of corruption, it serves as an example to guide future generations on how to manage accountability and their own actions in the future.
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