4 Ways The Internet Is Built Entirely On Lies

The internet has its open secrets, like the Nazi clubhouses or the fact that we're all just here for the porn. But before you make your daily trip to youwontbelievewhatfitswhere.com, you should read up on a few other ways this whole thing is all just an inane cycle of grifts. You see ...

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4
Almost 40% Of Web Traffic Is From Bots

Do you remember how every video, blog, and beloved internet comedy institution used to have a view counter, but most have been removed -- to the point where even YouTube is now leery of them? There were many reasons for their decline, but chief among them is that as of 2018, 37.9% of internet traffic was coming from bots.

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That was further broken down into 17.5% "good" bots -- those that index search engines, archive pages, and scrape travel sites for price trends so you can finally take that trip to Ohio, beautiful Ohio -- and 20.4% bad bots. In addition to using foul language and smoking e-cigarettes, bad bots are responsible for DDoS attacks (bringing a site down by overwhelming it with requests), data manipulation, the endless churn of bullshit news articles, and much more of what you find obnoxious about the web.

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One of their favorite targets are ticket sites, as bots will rush to snatch up tickets for re-sellers to offer at inflated prices. Government targets are also common, especially voter registration pages, because why make a strong case for your candidate when you can just fuck over the other guy? And then, of course, there are the fake views.

In November 2018, eight people were accused of bilking advertisers out of $36 million by running "empty websites" for bots. Sellers were made to think that their ads were racking up views on big sites like The Economist, but they were in truth only rattling around server farms. At its peak, the operation was using over a million IP addresses and a grab bag of tricks, like fake mouse movements, to make the ad impressions look human. Schemes like that are one of many reasons the internet economy is a shambling mess, but let's move on to Instagram.

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3
Fake Instagram Followers Are Costing Brands Money, But Helping Celebrities Cash In

Like most of what's made for kids these days, Instagram is mocked as a frivolous pursuit while also powering an industry worth billions of dollars. And so the platform is home to 95-million-and-counting fake accounts, which are often used to pad the follow numbers of everyone from celebrities and influencers to small businesses. You don't necessarily need tons of them to have an impact. The cafe with 2,000 followers is probably better than the one down the street that only has 1,100, right?

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You can buy followers from all sorts of online sources. Or if you happen to be in Russia, you can use a mall kiosk. But while it's one thing for a struggling musician to invent a few fans so they look credible when trying to book local bars, influencers with tens of thousands of fake followers are being paid to promote products to people who don't exist.

[Translation: "Likes and subscribers can now be bought directly from the machine in a shopping center under the Kremlin wall. The cyberpunk we deserve."]

These fakes used to be easy to spot. If someone claimed to be from Indonesia, but never posted anything and only followed American accounts, they probably weren't simply Jakarta's biggest fan of your local coffee shop warbler. Strings of numbers after account names are also a common tell, because @robert78656090, self-proclaimed lover of Donald Trump and the Chicago Socks of White, probably isn't being entirely truthful about his political opinions. Same with someone getting huge spikes of followers, rather than a slow and steady gain.

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Fake fans were estimated to cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019, all from working with people who were pitching their products to the howling void. But the fakes are getting smarter, so the tools to spot them are improving too, locking Instagram in a moronic cold war. Celebrities in particular benefit from the ruse, with Ellen DeGeneres, Kourtney Kardashian, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift called out as a few whose followers may be as much as 50% fake.

The issue isn't the Kardashians deciding to pad their numbers as much as it is fake accounts created for other purposes also following big celebrities in order to look genuine. But it's not like the celebs are objecting. Kylie Jenner makes an estimated million dollars per sponsored post. Just something to think about while you're at actual work, doing actual work.

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2
Some Fake Accounts Steal The Identities Of Real People

One of the easiest ways for a fake account to look real is by just looking like a real person. As in, their profile picture. And the easiest way to do that is to outright steal someone's identity. The New York Times took a look at 3.5 million Twitter bots and found that at least 55,000 were aping the names, pictures, bios, and other personal identifiers of real users. One 19-year-old discovered that her likeness was being used to shill cryptocurrency, real estate investments, and most charmingly, hardcore porn.

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The accounts avoid automatic detection with a few tricks, like tweaking the profile photo's size and color. Then it's just a matter of following thousands of accounts and endlessly retweeting their junk, until one day a Twitter user stumbles across themselves advertising a Malaysian machine parts factory.

Similar fakes exist on Instagram and Facebook. A Washington Post investigation forced Facebook to admit that its defensive measures are "much less effective than previously advertised." One left-leaning Texas college student learned that her name and photos were being used to spam pro-Trump memes. A San Francisco sommelier's doppelganger was a little more sophisticated, portraying itself as a globetrotting family man in between offering up totally natural-sounding posts like "Do you love ivanka trump?"

At least that finally explains how this mess still inspired 21,000 people to reach for that Like button.RealDonaldTrump/TwitterAt least that finally explains how this mess still inspired 21,000 people to reach for that "Like" button.

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It's not all pro-Trump shit. One conservative blogger found 60 Facebook accounts using photos of him to defraud women in a catfishing scheme. Another unknowing catfisher was stuck fielding demands from victims for their money back, while a French man had his identity cloned by a Bulgarian scammer who parlayed the fake account into a national celebrity. Facebook does try to control the bots, but it's like trying to play a thousand games of Whack-a-Mole at once. The sheer volume makes it impossible to spot them all, at least not without throwing far more resources at the problem. And if there's one thing Facebook hates, it's trying too hard to be better.

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And then there are accounts that use neural-network-generated profile photos capable of passing as human. In December 2019, Facebook terminated over 900 such accounts linked to Epoch Times, a sprawling Chinese-American media group with a baffling mix of anti-China and pro-QAnon views. Think Trump-loving anti-vaxxers who hate Chinese human rights abuses but wish Europeans would assault more immigrants in the streets. A report on the ban said that before they were caught, Epoch had bought over $9 million worth of ads and had attracted over 55 million followers ... but it was unclear how many of those followers were just bots. So good luck trying to find honest opinions on the 2020 election.

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1
Even If Traffic Isn't Coming From A Bot, It Might Be Coming From A Click Farm

For all the ways that modern bots can blend in, the best way to look human is still to be human. The problem lies in getting enough real people to make a statistical impact. This is where click farms come in. One person can be pretend to be 200 people, and for their trouble, they'll be paid as much as 0.5% of what they'd make at a real job!

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Click farms operate in places like Thailand, Bangladesh, and other countries with the right combination of cheap phone fees, cheaper labor, and devalued currency. 15 US dollars for 1,000 Facebook likes works out to nearly 1,300 Bangladeshi takas, which isn't bad for a country where the average monthly salary is 13,258 BDT. Of course, grunt clickers are paid well under that average for a task that makes you envy all the fresh air and exercise that Sisyphus got. Think hot, windowless rooms where the endless clicking sounds will slowly drive you insane.

Suddenly we've got a pretty good idea of what an ironic Hell would look like for every self-proclaimed "influencer."

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There are even farms that create piles of accounts to be sold to the click farms. Some are relatively less awful, offering either a veneer of professionalism or the option to drink on the job. But all involve tedious work to try to influence everything from the reputation of a New York City gym to the popularity of a Chinese social media account to the outcome of an Indonesian election.

It works because human activity, even the regimented sweatshop variety, is harder to spot than bots. An account's growth occurs over days, and the hundreds of thousands of SIM cards these farms churn through make each phone involved look like it belongs to a real person. Also, sometimes you just want your dystopian cyberpunk workplace to have a human touch, you know? There are still signs, of course -- like the generic inanity of the comments made by click farm accounts -- but nothing so obvious that catching and banning them can be turned into an automated process. Besides, what's a platform's motivation to crack down on a part of their economy?

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So while your reputation might take a hit if you're caught buying clicks, it's worth the risk for someone trying to establish their brand, because they just know that their thoughts on makeup removal will be the ones that change the world. In one experiment, two fake influencers were created, and then fake followers and likes were purchased for them until real brands started offering them products and endorsement deals worth 500 bucks. There's profit in it for everyone, except for the companies who get tricked into shipping freebies to a good ol' fashioned Texas girl beloved by the people of Faisalabad. Or the regular users, who just want to know who they can trust online. Which, as always, is Cracked and no one else.

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Mark wrote a book and has a Twitter account followed by only the most attractive real people.

For more, check out Why Stupid YouTube Comments Are Older Than The Internet:

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