Online Scams: It Pays to be Skeptical

Virtual Unreality. By Charles Seife. New York: Viking, 2014.

 51Yv5iP-c8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This book’s thesis is implied in its title. Mathematician/journalist Charles Seife notes ways in which the Internet has revolutionized the globe by democratizing access to knowledge. As with many good things, blessings come with downsides. The same powerful tool that delivers information also disseminates misinformation. Although it would be facile to blame the Internet for inventing irrational beliefs or behaviors, it does deliver seductive “unreality” with frightening efficiency. What is the Internet’s effect on global misinformation and what can any of us do about it? One could sum up this book’s content in three words: speed, scale, and commonsense.

The good news, as Seife sees it, is that the past provides analogs to most of the hoaxes, scams, conspiracy theories, and crazy ideas you’re likely to encounter online. Did you ever get an email from a deposed Nigerian dictator promising a share of his fortune if you help him smuggle it out of the country? Or a panicked message from a friend stuck overseas who needs help getting home because his wallet and passport were stolen? As Seife reveals, this gambit designed to separate gullible people from their money was originally called the “Spanish Prisoner” and dates at least to the mid-19th century. The bad news is that the Internet accelerates such frauds and makes them even more profitable. A 19th-century mountebank had to handwrite thousands of appeals, mail them with overseas postmarks and stamps, and endure considerable communications lag time. Physical limitations alone limited the fraud’s reach. Now, a single email can be sent to millions instantly, thereby reducing the likelihood of being caught and exponentially expanding the pool of dupes.

The story is similar with other perils along the information highway. I was once deceived by a “sockpuppet” scheme. Seife defines sockpuppetry as “the use of a false identity for purposes of deception,” [45] and it too is ancient. In my case, a former student—either because she was bored or unstable—induced an outpouring of sympathy when she told her Facebook friends that her husband had suddenly died. Sleuths soon revealed that there was no husband. Once the anger and embarrassment subsided, little harm was done in this incident, but sockpuppetry is more serious when perpetuated by sloppy journalists. Seife cites the Amina Arraf hoax of 2011. Global news media buzzed with anxiety over the “abduction” of the alleged Syrian lesbian. “Arraf,” for whom global vigils were held, turned out to be the fabrication of a Scottish Ph.D. student with strong views about Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Arraf” had a Facebook page, Twitter account, email address, and even photos—but all of it was virtual unreality.

As Seife, shows, the Internet, social media, and tools such as Photoshop make it easier for hoaxers to seem convincing. Bad pastiches—like Iran’s 2008 attempt to disguise a failed missile test—are easy to spot, but sophisticated creators of fake content can wreak havoc, as Dow Chemical discovered when pranksters created sites announcing Dow would pay $12 billion to compensate Bhopal survivors. To my mind, even scarier are SEO (search engine optimization) algorithms used by outlets as varied as Amazon, the Huffington Post, J. C. Penney, and the New York Times. These instantly make keyword associations in millions of searches, all so the sponsoring site will grab the lead “hit” when one does a Google search. SEOs are why, for instance, why old stories unexpectedly resurface, or why one clicks on a hit only to find that it has nothing to do with the intended search.

Seife doesn’t think that we have to cast ourselves in the victim role. Diligence will shield us from most virtual unreality, as will tools such as IP tracing applications and putting photographs into a reverse image search to see if a person is legitimate or has appropriated a face from elsewhere. Above all else, commonsense in the form of rational skepticism is in order­­–avoid games (such as FarmVille) that exist to mine your information, ignore all “top ten” sites, and simply stop thinking that everything you need to know is online or is true. Alas, these parts of Seife’s book rest upon circular reasoning. Among his major points is that the ability to deceive has increased exponentially, but I see little evidence that commonsense has done so. Seife’s work takes its place alongside others such as Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me I’m Lying and Michael Shemer’s classic Why People Believe Weird Things. Both have a better prescription against fraud, one akin to what the youthful Herod told his boyhood friend Claudius: “Trust no one, little marmoset!”

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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