Posts Tagged ‘Macedonia’

The Unreality Machine

January 21, 2019

This is the ninth post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” There was a gold rush in Veles, Macedonia. Teenage boys there worked in “media.” More specifically, American social media. The average U.S. internet is virtually a walking bag of cash, with four times the advertising dollars of anyone else in the world. And the U.S. internet user is very gullible. The following is from the book: “In a town with 25% unemployment and an annual income of under $5,000, these young men had discovered a way to monetize their boredom and decent English-language skills. They set up catch websites, peddling fad diets and weird health tips.” They relied on Facebook “shares” to drive traffic. Each click gave them a small slice of the pie from ads running along the side. Some of the best of them were pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a month.

Competition swelled, but fortunately the American political scene soon brought them a virtually inexhaustible source of clicks and resulting fast cash. This was the 2016 presidential election. Now back to the text “The Macedonians were awed by Americans’ insatiable thirst for political stories, Even a sloppy, clearly plagiarized jumble of text and ads could rack up hundreds of thousands of “shares.” The number of U.S. politics-related websites operated out of Veles swelled into the hundreds.

One of the successful entrepreneurs estimated that in six month, his network of fifty websites attracted some 40 million page views driven there by social media. This made him about $60,000. This 18-year-old then expanded his media empire. He outsourced the writing to three 15-year-olds, paying each $10 a day. He was far from the most successful of the Veles entrepreneurs. Some became millionaires, One rebranded himself as as “clickbait coach,” running a school where he taught dozens of others how to copy his success.

These viral news stories weren’t just exaggerations or products of political spin; they were flat-out lies. Sometimes the topic was the proof that Obama had been born in Kenya or that he was planning a military coup. Another report warned that Oprah Winfrey had told her audience that “some white people have to die.”

The following is from the book: “Of the top twenty best-performing fake stories spread during the election, seventeen were unrepentantly pro Trump. Indeed, the single most popular news story of the entire election—“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” Social media provided an environment in which lies created by anyone, from anywhere, could spread everywhere, making the liars plenty of cash along the way”

In 1995 MIT media professor Nicholas Negroponte prophesied that there would be an interface agent that read every newswire and newspaper and catch every TV and radio broadcast on the planet, and then construct a personalized summary. He called this the “Daily Me.”

Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein argues that the opposite might actually be true. Rather than expanding their horizons, people were just using the endless web to seek out information with which they already agree. He called this the “Daily We.”

A few years later the creation of Facebook, the “Daily We,” an algorithmically created newsfeed became a fully functioning reality.

For example, flat-earthers had little hope of gaining traction in a post-Christopher Columbus, pre-internet world. This wasn’t just because of the silliness of their views, but they couldn’t easily find others who shared them. But the world wide web has given the flat-earth belief a dramatic comeback. Proponents now have an active community and aggressive marketing scheme.

This phenomenon is called ‘homophily,” meaning “love of the same.” Homophily is what makes us humans social creatures able to congregate in such like-minded groups. It explains the growth of civilization and cultures, It is also the reason an internet falsehood, once it begins to spread, can rarely be stopped.

Unfortunately falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth. It becomes a deluge. The authors write, “Ground zero for the deluge, however, was in politics. The 2016 U.S. presidential election released a flood of falsehoods that dwarfed all previous hoaxes and lies in history. It was an online ecosystem so vast that the nightclubbing, moneymaking, lie-spinning Macedonians occupied only one tiny corner. There were thousands of fake website, populated by millions of baldly false stories, each then shared across people’s personal networks. In the final three months of the 2016 election, more of these fake political headlines were shared on Facebook than real ones. Meanwhile, in study of 22 million tweets, the Oxford Internet Institute concluded that Twitter users, too, and shared more disinformation, polarizing and conspiratorial content’ than actual news. The Oxford team called this problem “junk news.”