Everything is Fake!

Single Shot episode with Matt Bailey

We live in a (digital) world of fakes, frauds, and filters.

From inflated user counts to clickbait headlines and filtered influencers, how can we know what is true? Growing up, we said that we “had to see it to believe it.” Later it became “trust, but verify.” Unfortunately, in this age the mantra is “assume everything is false, until proven otherwise.”

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Everything is fake

There have been a number of phrases employed to describe the trustworthiness of information. Decades ago, it was, “I have to see it to believe it.” We’ve also had “trust, but verify.” But now, in this connected, digital age it has become, “Assume everything is false, until proven otherwise.”

“It’s all true: Everything is fake,” says former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao

She says this in referencing the user counts from the major tech and social platforms. She blames mobile users and switching cell towers as the primary culprit for inflating user numbers.

But inflating user numbers is nothing new among the tech giant companies. Facebook once claimed to have more Facebook users in the US than there was population – by a long shot. And it didn’t trigger any FTC or other regulatory investigation. Advertisers hungrily swallowed that lie and continued to spend on Facebook’s inflated user numbers, despite an obvious fiction that anyone could disprove.

Not only this event, Faceboook has constantly overstating the number of users, time spent, and active accounts. Despite removing billions of fake accounts each year, their own system is designed to boost a false user engagement statistic. If you have the FB or Instagram app on your phone, it is designed to ping the server daily, creating a newsfeed which then claims you as a daily active user, and charges advertisers for the ads that loaded based on the ping. You don’t even have to go to the site to be counted anymore!

In the middle of the current Elon Musk and Twitter spat, there is now the question of how many accounts are bots, and not real humans. Twitter maintains that it is less than 5%, other estimates put it closer to 40%. Bob Hoffman, who is no fan of Elon by the way, commented that Elon is asking the questions that advertisers should have been asking from day 1: What exactly am I paying for?”

Bots are as active as humans online.  AT one time, it was estimated that 40% is internet traffic is bots. At one time, YouTube was so full of “bots masquerading as people” that The NYTimes reported that employees feared that the system for detecting fraudulent traffic would start to see humans as the fake users. Again, as I am preparing this podcast, the Association of Internet Advertisers, the ANA, released their investigation into Ad Fraud, and estimate that ad fraud takes $120 Billion dollars out of the economy and moves it, well, somewhere…. These are ads that are purchased by advertisers, sold by agencies, seen by nobody, and someone, somewhere pockets the money.

But bots play a significant role in influencers and influencer marketing. Followers and likes can be purchased – cheaply. There are click farms in third-world countries that have hundreds or thousands of phones and simply create more clicks. However, it can be done even more cheaply through creating bots to do much the same thing. It became so bad that one of the top brands that uses influencers, P&G to create an official policy that will not work with influencers that use bot or paid followers to inflate their numbers. Interestingly the CEO of P&G was quoted at a conference as saying that social media was 5% of their ad spent, but 95% of their headaches!

Speaking of influencers, we can go a step further and talk about the filters being used on Instagram. These filters are amazing and can turn anyone into a beautiful and flawless model. This has become so prevalent that Ogilvy UK announced this year that it will no longer work with influencers who use filters or retouch or distort their images. Not only this, but there is also a bill in the UK parliament that will require influencers to disclose if they have used any editing software on their image! It is even called the Digitally Altered Body Image bill.

Unfortunately, not all images are digitally altered. Photos were leaked of a fitness influencer placing padding in her rear – all designed to create a false backside without digital enhancement and claim “no filter!”.

But it’s not all influencers. From brands to simply people looking for likes, content is faked to create attention, controversy, and well, internet points?

Brands create astroturfing campaigns, making it look like everyday people are sharing content that features a brand – even if it does not directly say the brands, an image or brand is in the photo.  AN example would be a dropped bowl of cereal that someone posts, yet it prominently features a well-known brand cereal box in a perfect position, well-lit, and readable. This type of advertising is particularly interesting, as there are accounts created at social media sites just for this type of use, and agencies that specialize in this content.

I’ll even add into this, the clickbait headlines that I rail against so much. Having a background in Journalism, it’s painful to watch as headlines are transformed into misleading, deceptive or over-hyped sentences that are designed to evoke curiosity and the click – all to gain those previous ad views. Clickbait ranges from the obvious, “you’ll never believe what happens next” to the less obvious use of extreme adjectives to get the most attention. In these cases, the adjective rarely, if ever, actually, and accurately describes the situation. An example is a headline that a politician “eviscerated” an opponent in her response.  In the actual story, she called him a lunatic. I’m not so sure that counts as verbal evisceration, but it certainly overstated the exchange.

Even as I am preparing this, CNN’s new chief has announced his intention to stop the overuse of the “breaking news” graphic. They have put “breaking news” banner on segments where anchors were simply talking about a trending topic. Sounds like someone’s cried wolf a few to many times.

This quote from Chris Licht’s CNN memo jumped out at me, “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.” If this is the case, then how should television – and internet- news change?  If the focus is informing with truth rather than alarming with shocking headlines?

But its those slight nuances of word choice, pushing the limits and boundaries of real events to find the most salacious, intriguing adjectives and interpretations.

But let’s get back to the falseness of the online world that we deal with every day. IN one of my classes last week, a student brought up a video that was posted supposedly attempting to discredit a business. It was found that the video was years old and from another country, yet someone posted it and tagged the business in an attempt to harm that business.

But how do you defend yourself against this overshowing falseness and fakery?

First, I start with myself and my family. I started by educating myself about fake content and the nature of online communications. Then, I worked with my kids to identify the fake influencers and the filtered images that are constantly posted. Do not believe anything you see posted online, especially in social media.

Cool stories, first-or second hand accounts, don’t believe them. They are likely made-up, appropriated from others, heavily edited, but ultimately partisan content to make someone look bad or look good.  Don’t believe anything.

Unfortunately, the mantra is, “Everything is fake, unless proven otherwise.”

But then I’ve realized that the behavior of people lately has been absolutely crazy. In my recent interview with Dr Tomi Mitchell, she predicted that things would get worse. The isolation from others caused by COVID, work from home, and other events have caused us to be alone more than ever – disconnected from others and disconnected from a community.

Our 20-year experiment with digital, mobile, and social media technology has yielded a dramatic shift in our discourse.  We are more isolated from people and conversations than ever, and the cracks are showing in our communities. When physically isolated and digitally plugged in, we don’t hear alternative voices, there is only the echo chamber of others who reinforce radical and harmful beliefs.

In a community, we learn from each other through – conversation, sharing, learning, observing. Being around others teaches us about the appropriateness of behaviors, thoughts, and talk.

Opinions and thoughts are met with immediately in a community, we learn that they may not be complete or well-reasoned and your assumptions are challenged. The usual result is learning to have more empathy and to be ready to listen rather than speak.

When we lose community, we lose a critical influence on our development as humans. We are social and meant to be in a community.

My intent in this episode is not to drive you to despair – yes everything is fake! But when you talk with another person – a conversation, you participate in community. You find real thoughts, motivations, cares, worries, and inspiration.  Recording these podcasts with a variety of guests have been an amazing time. I’ve not only had some great guests, but I’ve developed friendships and continue to talk to many of them long after the recording. I think I’ve made more friends during the pandemic than before!

What is has done has made me an advocate for conversations. I challenge you this week to call someone and go out for coffee.  Have a conversation and see where it takes you! Please – don’t try to persuade your guest to a viewpoint or challenge their thinking. Rather, explore why they think this way, what events influence them, what makes them sympathetic? Challenge yourself to simply ask questions and learn. You might even have a good time.

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