IMAGE: Schwerdhoefer — Pixabay (CC0)

Basically, the internet’s a house of cards

This New York Magazine article entitled “How much of the internet is fake? Turns out, a lot of it, actually” is long, but worth wading through if you want to understand the world we live in.

According to the article, the fakeness of the internet isn’t so much about fake news as the plague of bots, click fraud, simulated video, traffic factories, followers, comments and other stratagems to simulate popularity; the real issue is the Inversion, the tipping point when the number of fake users exceeds real ones: fake accounts collecting fake cookies and fake mouse movements making fake clicks on fake pages, in a kind of parallel universe in which the only real thing is advertising.

On some sites, the fakery is an insult to the intelligence, a level of decay that most social networks dare not tackle for fear of revealing just how little real traffic passes through accounts, because to do so would spell their own ruin, a phenomenon I described several years ago as akin to Blade Runner, a time in the future when technology has managed to create androids so perfect that they are indistinguishable from humans and we need to devise complex personality tests to discern who is who. We have watched in horror in recent years how primitive bots that initially maintained a passive presence among the followers of an account have steadily taken on a life of their own and are now able to simulate more and more processes, follow other accounts, make random retweets, generate browsing patterns or copy and paste content from genuine accounts. In short, we now have an escalation between the creators of fake accounts and the managers of the social networks supposedly concerned with tackling them, increasingly characterized by machine learning and sophisticated high-level automation, driving a race to the bottom in which the goal is to appear to have more followers.

At what point was the internet prostituted in the service of a crazy popularity contest based on bogus metrics? A few of years ago, I remember thinking “they haven’t learned a thing” when I saw the record companies had begun reporting grotesquely inflated views of their artists’ videos on YouTube, but looking back, I now see that they had learned how to reconstruct the same system of bogus sales figures that existed before the internet.

It now seems we’ve reached the point where everything on the internet is fake: there are now people out there pretending they’re being paid by brands so as to make themselves seem popular: it’s one way for would-be influencers to attract potential sponsors. But hey, who needs real people? Technology now means we can’t tell the difference between something written by a person or a bot created on a troll farm: a chatbot with an image created by an algorithm appears so real so people on Tinder can’t tell the difference.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the internet is worth bothering with anymore. I like what I do and have no other motivation than sharing interesting stuff with real people, and it would never occur to me to fake my metrics. But I’m afraid I’m in a dwindling minority and it depresses me to see my work replicated on pages created by bots to host ads that receive fake clicks, because that means I’m part of the problem.

I’ve no idea where this is going, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to a good place. There was a time when I was optimistic (or idealistic, or stupid, or both), and with each day that passes I miss those days. What a bummer.

(En español, aquí)