“Spies (Nikolai Levy Remix)” – The Long Tradition of Fake News

In 1999, a 20-second MP3-file purporting to be from Coldplay was uploaded to Napster by a young man in Stanmore, North London. He entitled the file “Spies (Nikolai Levy Remix)”. He let a few people download it, and then deleted his original file.

The file started to get passed around. People started to claim they had the track. “Spies (Nikolai Levy Remix)” even began to show up on unofficial bootlegs, and Coldplay discographies for the band. The song has since been listed on fans sites as one of the rarest Coldplay tracks ever. There’s even a would-be copy on YouTube making someone some AdSense revenue.

However, to all Coldplay fans out there: “Spies (Nikolai Levy Remix)” does not exist. It’s fake. The original MP3-file was 20 seconds of static.

It started as a joke using his friend’s name to troll the downloaders.  So, what of Mr Levy? Well, Nic – as his pals call him – is still in North London working for his dad’s firm selling high-end medical equipment to hospitals. He plays no instruments, can’t DJ, or remix anything.

Sorry Coldplay fans, you have fallen prey to Gaslighting – the idea that those on the end of false information are led to doubt their own judgement and begin to consider the falsehood as fact.

Those fake emails saying your PayPal payment has failed, or claiming your credit card has been cancelled. They lead you to doubt what you know not to be true. You call your bank, you check your PayPal, you become suspicious and potentially distrusting of the real emails from your bank. After all, the real emails look like the fake emails!

If It Bleeds It Leads

Gaslighting is more than a smoke and mirrors to obfuscate information, it’s an attempt to fully reboot what is understood to be the norm, and create doubt. And where it succeeds online is that bad news spreads twice as fast as good.  In newsroom parlance: “if it bleeds it leads.” A bad story will attract more interaction. Traffic trumps truth.

However, online there is a tendency for people to trust. Be that adding strangers as contacts on Facebook or LinkedIn, or interacting with strangers (or bots!) on Twitter, which only to leave them open to manipulation for money or their time.

And internet users have proven themselves equally sneaky, willing to install things that promise to show who looked at their profile, or these days less pernicious, they just want check if a story is real.

Where spammers used to phish, or hack accounts via profile snoopers, now they create fact checking services that themselves are bogus!

Fake-fact checking is another Machiavellian opportunity to promise something others can’t supply, e.g. “real news” rather than fake songs.

Rule Number One

News media had hitherto been held as sacrosanct, trusted, unbiased and authentic. That was the case when paid editors, sub-editors and trained journalists acted as the filter. Or when politics was debated without “newspeak” style populism. The golden rule of journalism is: Check the source. But this has given way to rule number one for spammers: find the Achilles heel.

In all instances the aim is traffic. Get the user to a site, regardless of how unscrupulous the method. The spammer’s end-game is typically to drive users to a website that reaps Google’s AdSense revenue. In the early days, there were like-jacking, (‘Dad walks in on daughter’), to click-bait (‘You will not believe what happened next’) type content to fake news sites. And there are Twitter bots filling the social network with fake profiles churning out thousands of tweets a day with links to various bits of spam, be that links for gambling or motivational speakers. In each case, the conduits peddled are dolling out some fakery or inducement.

Litter Creates Litter

It’s been said that litter creates litter, so it’s important to keep our streets clean. Fake news seems to have a similar stain. Where there is fake news, there are those willing to contribute by sharing, liking debating the ‘facts’ of the story.

Every like, every comment simply serves to warm the Facebook algorithm score for the link, with more interaction, the algorithm serves the link further afield. The litter creates more litter!

The game of whack-a-mole to keep fake-news out of feeds has led to German fact-checking as standard in Facebook, the BBC has created a new division cutely entitled Permanent Reality Check, and, set against Brexit, the British Government is to debate the impact of fake news on democracy.

Fake Bans

Though Google has banned 200 fake news publishers from its AdSense ad network, the bans are not new, as evidenced by spammers driven fake “Check Adsense Ban” sites, that themselves are full of Adsense ads!

Google has previously waged war on content-sparse pages, or sites made up predominantly of various adverts from ad networks, or presented behind a captcha or a quiz.

Two-hundred sites is a drop in the ocean, Google can ban any fake or duplicitous site from its network, but leaves many illicit and infringing sites to generate traffic (these days from social media) which Google then monetizes.

So, where SEO gave us websites full of gibberish trying to attract the Google search-bot that would crawl then index those pages, Facebook has taken over as the traffic-gift that keeps giving.

Herr Zuckerberg tried to do the right thing, to take some responsibility, add checks and balances to Facebook algorithm, but the fact checkers are yet another cop-out and shifts balance back to human intervention. There was a moment, a split-second on the internet, around 2005 Facebook insisted people used a university backed email to access the site. In those days, Facebook knew which type of dog you were. These days, we’re back to doubting, that on the internet nobody knows what’s true, nobody knows you’re a dog. Who’s man’s best friend online?

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  1. […] news and its close relationship with unsolicited content, e.g. spam, have been covered by Netopia. The ECMPF conference has an overarching question of how to verify news, and how to do this: via […]

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