On the internet, fibs abound – there are millions of fake Facebook and Twitter followers, fake clicks and fake reviews, fake algorithms pretending to be people but even the people can be fake – they might fake an opinion, stage a vacation photo or make false pronouncements on how proud they are of their kids in a never ending struggle to keep up with the Joneses.
In fact, a few weeks ago while testing a Google-powered ad program, an advertisement disguised as a legitimate news story appeared on NNSL Media’s website.
“Yellowknife, NWT: Recent attacks on seniors prompt police to issue public safety alert, urging, older residents to carry new safety device,” read the eye-grabbing headline.
The story included a retelling of a robbery attempt on a 63-year-old woman who was saved by the advertised device.
The ad leads to a website selling the SafeSound Personal Alarm: “Simply pull the pin, and this ear-piercing alarm will activate for up to a half hour of continuous sound,” states the website.
The manufacturer claims that the SafeSound is “saving millions of lives” and has been proven to be more effective than conventional deterrents such as mace and pepper spray, though we could not find any evidence for this claim on the company’s website, nor did we encounter any online during our research.
But whether or not the SafeSound is a reliable product, the fake message is an example of a devious online techniques that manipulate users into doing things they might not otherwise choose to.
This is the digital version of the shady tactics used to influence consumer behaviour, like putting too much air in chip bags, soliciting unplanned purchases by placing items near cash registers, or the old bait-and-switch tactic for used cars.
So who is the central villain in this story, the driving force behind much of the chaos and disrepute online?
This isn’t hard to figure out. Google and social media platforms are where these things are coming from. Alas, they’re either unwilling or, at least right now, unable to do anything about it.
Traditional media, such as Yellowknifer, but also radio and television, developed standards long ago to prevent the broadcast of false information.
Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. But you can be rest assured that actual human beings are vetting this stuff and not some algorithm. And if we do mistakenly publish bad information, it won’t just disappear down the information highway. We’ll correct it.
Big Tech has made the 21st Century a very interesting time to be alive. Information – and the means to convey it – has never been so readily available. This, in many ways, has led to a freer and better informed society but in some cases, such as the proliferation of fake news, it’s been the exact opposite.
The Googles and Facebooks of the world have an obligation to remedy that. The alternative is a greater demand for government intervention, which carries its own risks.
In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians he was preparing to unleash something called a “digital charter.” The PM is pitching this 10-point digital charter as something that will tackle hate speech and misinformation by imposing “meaningful financial consequences” on social media companies that have done wrong.
Obviously, the danger here is the more the government intervenes, the greater the temptation for whatever political party is in power to manipulate social media rules for its own ends.
This is why Big Tech needs to take fake news seriously, acknowledge that it is its greatest proliferator and do something about it that’s a little more, what’s the word? Traditional.