Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

The tangled web of deceit and credulity that powers the online world

From fraudulent websites to fake reviews and data-harvesting bots, the perils of the internet are well known – but our willingness to dismiss risk is embedded in even the most legitimate business models

The belief that we are safe, even when we should know better, drives much of the online economy. EPA
The belief that we are safe, even when we should know better, drives much of the online economy. EPA

Just before Christmas, Action Fraud, the UK’s “national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime” posted a news update. The police-run website had recently identified two impostor sites. “Members of the public who are searching for the official website (for example on search engines),” it said with no hint of irony, “may be directed to one of two fake sites, action-fraud.com or actionfraud.eu.”

It went on to explain how visitors hoodwinked by these fake sites were pumped for personal and financial information. One had already been “disrupted”, but there were many others out there that the organisation was working to take down.

Fraudulent websites set up to defraud people seeking help against cyber-fraud: it’s the kind of story that transcends Monty Python and heads straight into the realms of Kafka. Unfortunately, set against the current state of the internet, it is not exceptional. In fact, it is possible to say that a strange nexus of deceit and credulity powers vast portions of the online world.

And this is not just a case of good systems being manipulated by technologically adept hustlers. We are also talking about systems that work exactly as they were meant to. Online businesses collect massive amounts of data about their users, but they rely on us continuing to believe that this is essentially risk-free – even when we know it isn't. Online reviews have been proven time and again to be notoriously unreliable, and yet we still refer to them constantly.

From social media apps and e-commerce to the latest digital start-ups, everything is part of this grubby, unstoppable economy. Many of us have heard about it, and yet we are still willing to suspend our disbelief every time we go online. To that extent, we are all pretty gullible.

To see how ripe for abuse many of these systems are, take Oobah Butler’s restaurant, The Shed At Dulwich. In late 2017, it was ranked number one out of London’s 18,092 dining establishments on the TripAdvisor website, with 96 five-star reviews.

While the name may have given it the air of a fashionable London eaterie – think distressed wood, exposed brickwork, small plates, high prices – it was exactly what it said it was: a shed in an overgrown garden in south London. Mr Butler had gamed the TripAdvisor platform, manipulated social media and pulled the wool over the eyes of online punters. He had won his rating with fake reviews and without ever serving a single paying customer. Finally, when he did decide to open, he dished up ready-meals from a budget frozen food outlet.

According to Mr Butler’s social media accounts, the whole farrago is now detailed in a book that will be published next month. Or will it? Frankly, who can tell any more. It’s zooming up the Amazon pre-order charts, either way.

Back in October, the consumer group Which? released a report describing how fake review factories run via Facebook manufacture misleading five-star ratings that are then posted on Amazon. In September, an Italian court jailed and fined a man €8,000 for selling fake reviews to hundreds of hospitality firms.

That the internet is filled with deception is not news. As Max Read recently wrote in New York Magazine, roughly half of all online activity is powered by bots. Every moment of every day, these insidious applications go about their business of ripping to shreds any legitimacy associated with usage data, traffic and advertising analytics. This is widely known, and yet multi-million-dollar business models are still based on such statistics – it’s almost as if the whole industry is part of one giant scam. And bots can now do plenty worse than that. These days, they can dynamically generate content, specifically designed to target unwitting users, their unprotected computers and their valuable personal data.

What is troubling is not just that there are systems of falsehood designed to take advantage of the gullible, but that an entire economy of gullibility has been built, normalised and is now being used against us. In May last year, following the Cambridge Analytica furore – in which it was revealed that personal data from millions of user profiles had been harvested without people’s consent and used to target them with political advertising and fake news – Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would launch a “clear history” function to expunge records of user behaviour from company servers.

Little more was heard of it until December, when Facebook told the Recode website that the process was proving more complicated than it thought, and that it might be available for testing in the spring. The problem for Facebook – and for many other internet companies – it appears, is that the willingness of its users to freely hand over large amounts of personal data is central to the way it operates. Most online platforms are now far too entrenched in the gullibility economy to wean themselves off it.

What is doubly tragic is that more and more people want to jump on this bandwagon. Those in power are all responding to this economy not with caution but with alacrity. After all, Cambridge Analytica’s major clients were not consumer brands, but political parties and national governments. In an environment of such astonishing, normalised fakery, Mr Butler's restaurant prank and Action Fraud sound less like amusing stories than proof of concept for manipulation on a far greater scale.

Sidin Vadukut is an Indian author and historian who lives in London

Updated: January 6, 2019 02:27 PM