Can You Trust the Internet?

The “new normal”: Fake news, fake reviews and gamed algorithms put product and news consumers at risk.

Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal’s latest article about fake product reviews on Amazon gives mainstream credence to a trend that’s been bubbling for years. The ultimate take-away confirms something all of us have suspected: the internet can’t be trusted. 

PBS Frontline’s latest take down of Facebook (The Facebook Dilemma) confirms it at the social media level. 

The implications of this are profound. When information and data can’t be trusted, we lose confidence in our understandings and cease to make decisions based on a clear version of reality. This development isn’t new, by the way. The advertising industry used advanced psychology and persuasion techniques for decades to get us where we are today.

Now, however, there’s a new twist. The same technology we built and worship works against our best interests. The same pipe dreams championed by techies – big data, AI and convenient apps – are being used against the very machine they come from. There’s no clear method for trusting Amazon reviews, news stories (mainstream or otherwise), the authenticity of social media profiles or the accuracy of political ads.

Welcome to your new digital nightmare.  

Structural Malaise

The problem is how the system (the internet) is structured and incentivized. Ryan Holiday’s book on PR gaming, Trust Me, I’m Lying, breaks down these issues with crystal clarity. The same levers described in his book can be applied to this Amazon product review trend. Holiday’s book chronicles the methods by which PR professionals and marketers game the blog system to shepherd product coverage and fake news from small media outlets, up to medium-sized outlets, and ultimately to the mainstream media. The process is a reversal of the old days when news topics would “bubble down” from professionally reported news created at trusted news outlets like The New York Times.  

Here’s a very basic structural explanation of how the strategies Holiday describes and the fake product reviews Stern exposes work. 

  1. Companies pay for positive/influential exposure. In the case of the press, YouTubers and other content producers are paid or bartered with to promote and link to specific content (news, PR and overt advertising). With products, users both fake and real are paid in real dollars and free products to post positive reviews on Amazon.
  2. The ability to create fake email addresses (Gmail, Yahoo, whatever) allows shady characters to like, share and otherwise up-vote any product, cause, candidate or issue. PBS Frontline exposes this quite well. The system itself is broken, and click farms at home and abroad are designed to exploit it.
  3. Once a trend, product or news item gains critical mass, it bubbles up the media chain. On Amazon, it may become the most highly rated item in a search. On the Huffington Post, it may become the most shared article of the day. On Facebook, it may become the latest political meme that’s covered by the major networks. It’s interesting how the media snake eats its own tail – mainstream media ends up covering stories by searching topics trending on Twitter and Facebook, and those stories were often seeded by bloggers who played the story up the media chain by using local news outlets (for example, video stories published by local news affiliates like KNBC Los Angeles) to gain authenticity. It’s incestuous.

One fascinating thing, with respect to Amazon reviews, is that reviews get boosted by reviewers recruited on Facebook Groups! The filth is spreading like a virus. The technology machine seems to be eating itself!

 The Erosion of Trust

All of this erodes public trust. We don’t trust election results, product reviews and news sources. The dream of internet democracy appears to be reaching its death throes. 

If you’re interested in more of this analysis, take a look at how advertising and media work in the digital age in my latest book, Media Collusion: Journalism and Marketing Experts Share the Secrets of Sneaky Advertising, Targeted Persuasion, AI and Tracking, Political Deception and Coercion, and Dishonest News. 




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