How much of the internet and digital environment many now live their lives entirely engulfed in is completely fake? A disturbing report in New York Magazine lays out some key facts, beginning with the following astounding trend:
For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”
Some of the methods and data revealing just how we arrived at a largely "fake internet" were revealed by alarming Justice Department findings based on unsealed indictments against eight people involved in what's widely considered among the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered, as the accused fleeced advertisers to the tune of $36 million.
NY Mag explains of their methods, which are indicative of what's happening more broadly:
The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist.
This resulted in an army of bots that could imitate humans producing “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers” — as one exhaustive study demonstrated.
Studies compiled over past years suggest a general trend, notes NY Mag, that less than 60 percent off all web traffic is human, with some researchers finding a "healthy majority" of this to be bots.
Getting easier to imagine an economy with zero human beings in it. https://t.co/J2Qyab7TKj— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) December 27, 2018
There are also perhaps simpler, or less technologically sophisticated means employed to generate fake clicks — namely the "click farm" phenomena.
The report finds, for example, that a YouTube creator wishing to up their clicks and subscribers, and thereby increase ad revenue, can hire a click farm to produce 5,000 video views for as little as $15.
I never tire of looking at videos of Chinese click farms. It's just so surreal to see hundreds of phones playing the same video for the purposes of fake engagment. pic.twitter.com/bHAGLqRqVb— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) December 10, 2018
The NY Mag report explains the following:
And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.
Could we indeed be headed for — as LA Times journalist Matt Pearce put it — an economy with zero human beings in it?