This was published in the Irish Times on December 15th 2016.
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” The internet reverberates with catchy populism. The more attention that a piece attracts, the more that people promote it to their friends and community. The more a piece is amplified, the higher credence given to it by web software. Then the higher a piece appears in search rankings and social network feeds, yet the more attention it receives. Positive feedback can frequently amplify a lie to become a convenient truth.
The good news is that such popular hit pieces can generate a lot of money. Channel 4 in the UK broadcast interviews on the 24th November last with teenagers from Veles, in Macedonia. Each is earning up to €200K, or even more, from the advertising associated with their successful pieces.
Publishers of web content notify Google and Facebook of empty slots in their content, which are placeholders for adverts. Advertisers pay Google and Facebook to insert their ads into these slots, alongside content that matches particular keywords associated with each advert. Advertisers also specify target demographics and local geographies for their ads. The advertisers know that only a few readers will be interested. But with millions of readers, having just a few percent clicking through on the ads will still be significant. Within acceptable limits of puerility, advertisers are not overly fussy about which specific web sites and Facebook pages their ads actually end up on. They key metric is a steady stream of clicks to the ads concerned.
So how then are Macedonian teenagers making a lot of money? Actually its surprisingly easy. Design a website or Facebook page that appears formatted akin to global news brands. Sprinkle in a few outrageous headlines and pieces, provided you are unfazed by any defamation laws. Something like “Michelle Obama is a Man!”; “Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump!”; “CNN Promotes Fake News about Mike Pence” – you get the idea. Then sign up to Google and Facebook and tell them you are willing to be paid for any adverts they want to insert into empty slots alongside your piece. Then count the euros hitting your Paypal account as your fake news goes mainstream. Freedom of Speech can indeed Trump Truth.
There are a few tricks of the trade. Various heuristics can fool the algorithms to promote your content ahead of others. If you become proficient you can even persuade Google to revise world history. The Guardian newspaper has published a number of recent articles illustrating how Google results can assert racial hatred, because certain right wing groups have been more tactically exploitive of Google’s algorithms than politically correct opponents.
How did Google and Facebook in particular get it so wrong? Google used to have a motto of “Don’t be Evil” by which it asserted its staff should abide by the highest norms. After some sixteen years, it dropped that byline last year. In a letter alongside its 2004 IPO prospectus, Google asserted that “Google users trust our systems to help them make important decisions”. Indeed: this year, many users trusted Google to help them decide the next American President of the USA by ranking what headlines to believe. The 2004 letter went on: “Our results are the best we know how to produce.” But now in 2016, those results can be blatantly misleading, and some have been positively treacherous. In 2004, Google asserted its results are “unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them”. But now instead, Google accepts payment by advertisers whose ads appear alongside deliberately biased and unobjective Google results specifically written, by Macedonian teenagers amongst others, to attract such adverts.
Google and Facebook have grown as a consequence of their employees codifying algorithms to prioritise content. Both companies have sought to minimise human curation, favouring automated approaches to efficiently process the vast volume of content published each day. Whatever truth or crassness such content may or may not contain appears to be entirely irrelevant. What appears to matter above anything else is generating revenue. This is achieved by generating as many advertising clicks and read throughs as algorithmically possible, regardless. Regardless of the damage to the advertising income of professional news organisations and public service broadcasting. Regardless of the truth.
The internet is still infantile. Many of its algorithms and business models are frankly asinine. Automated content analysis is but the first step to the invention of algorithmic fact verification and editorial precision. A minority view, however factually incorrect, need not necessarily be suppressed, but it should not be asserted as an undeniable truth even if doing so would generate an enormous number of ad clicks. Current digital advertising business models carpet bomb millions of readers with irrelevant and untimely ads, hoping that at least a few percent of readers will read them. Precision advertising, with near 100% success rates, has yet to be invented.
The astute observation on the power of repeated lies, attributed to Lenin but in fact first published in 1869, was prescient in the internet age. It is both astonishing how little effort can now leverage an outsized reaction, and that doing so can be financially lucrative. Has there ever been a case in history when a society made itself vulnerable by creating a technology which pays foreign amateurs and enables more sinister forces both to undermine its own cohesion?