Every day is April Fools’ Day on the internet

With barrage of fake news, consumers must read everything online with a healthy dose of skepticism

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Today is April Fool’s Day. That means you’ll be tempt­ed to believe and pass along some crazy sto­ry pub­lished by a site you’ve nev­er heard of, which makes an unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claim about some­thing con­tro­ver­sial that you wish were true.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of msnbc.com

Who am I kid­ding?  Every day is April Fools’ Day on the inter­net. And we are the fools.

There’s been so much talk about the role of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in the elec­tion last fall, but as we’ve dis­cussed, fake news is much old­er than Don­ald Trump’s polit­i­cal career.

Relat­ed sto­ry: Attack­ers hit pay dirt when send­ing emails that use Trump’s name

In fact, I think it’s fair to say it was invented—not by Russians—but by good old-fash­ioned Amer­i­can adver­tis­ing com­pa­nies. Yes, inter­net adver­tis­ers paved the way for today’s fake news del­uge. (Acai berries, any­one?). Back in 2010, I helped coin the term “fakos­phere” to describe the surge of fake blogs hawk­ing prod­ucts. Well, the fakos­phere is basi­cal­ly anoth­er name for the inter­net now.

Help has arrived

So sug­gests an orga­ni­za­tion call­ing itself the Fool­Proof Foun­da­tion, which says that fake adver­tis­ing is now “a near­ly over­pow­er­ing pres­ence in our lives.” Just in time for April Fools’ Day, Fool­Proof has launched a web­site devot­ed to help­ing con­sumers sep­a­rate fake from real.

For years, you’ve stum­bled on fake reviews and man­u­fac­tured prod­uct “testimonials”—even full-fledged made-up “news” stories—enthusiastically pro­claim­ing the virtues of weight loss prod­ucts or wrin­kle erasers.

The prob­lem is so wide­spread that it’s an exis­ten­tial cri­sis for ser­vices like Yelp, or even Ama­zon, which rely heav­i­ly on hon­est user input to help con­sumers make pur­chase deci­sions. After all, if you can’t trust inter­net com­menters, who can you trust?

Favored sales pitch

Fake News is fast replac­ing rec­og­niz­able adver­tis­ing as the weapon of choice for the clear major­i­ty of adver­tis­ers and web­sites,” says Will deHoo, co-founder of Fool­Proof, in an announcement.

When was the last time you read a news sto­ry on the inter­net and you couldn’t tell when the news end­ed and the ad began? Or when you saw nor­mal head­lines at the bot­tom of a sto­ry with one con­spic­u­ous­ly pos­i­tive sto­ry mixed in—something like, “How did she live to be 106 years old eat­ing only chocolate?”

That’s fake news. Fool­Proof says that fake con­sumer news is a one-sided sales pitch mas­querad­ing as trust­wor­thy sto­ries. Fake news goes by many names: native adver­tis­ing, adver­to­ri­als, invis­i­ble adver­tis­ing and fact distortion.

Adver­tis­ers have spent the last five years per­fect­ing how to hide adver­tis­ing with­in edi­to­r­i­al con­tent,” says Mara Ein­stein, author of Blacks Ops Adver­tis­ing: Native Ads, Con­tent Mar­ket­ing, and the Covert World of the Dig­i­tal Sell and a mem­ber of FoolProof’s Wal­ter Cronkite Committee.

Rough­ly 80 per­cent of con­sumers are fooled by such sto­ries, Fool­Proof says.

The newest research sug­gests that native adver­tis­ing will soon rep­re­sent almost three-fourths of dis­play adver­tis­ing. And most of that will be ‘cus­tom native’—the kind that looks most like the web­site on which it appears,” Ein­stein said.

Pro­ceed with caution

As the Russ­ian inter­fer­ence sto­ry reach­es its “end­less con­gres­sion­al hear­ings” stage, one crit­i­cal wit­ness will nev­er be called to testify—the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion sys­tem. The only rea­son Russia’s real­i­ty dis­tor­tion field exper­i­ments worked last fall is because Amer­i­cans are suckers.

The sto­ries you saw passed around like wild­fire, like the pope endors­ing Don­ald Trump, were so obvi­ous­ly fake that they could cause any 13-year-old to fail a Social Stud­ies test. But there we were, crazy Amer­i­cans, blind­ed by par­ty loy­al­ty, or just dis­like of a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date, pass­ing along unsourced and eas­i­ly debunked information.

Every high school stu­dent knows: When you read some­thing, you must at least ver­i­fy it a few oth­er places before you “cite” it.

If you won’t fol­low that basic require­ment of knowl­edge in your polit­i­cal life, at least obey it as a consumer.

Now, more than ever (thanks Con­gress for over­turn­ing those FCC pri­va­cy rules!), firms have incred­i­ble research and insights into what makes you tick, and can exploit that with adver­tis­ing designed to fool you. Don’t fall for it. Remem­ber, every day is April Fools’ Day online. Treat all of it with the skep­ti­cism it deserves.


Posted in Cybersecurity, Featured Story