Confidence Trick : Trust and the Online Nemesis

A Confidence Trick

The internet can be an unnerving and wicked entity, and I’m saying that without even having ventured onto the notorious Dark Web. A couple of weeks ago I paid the equivalent of five dollars to list my blog on a blog directory called Blogarama only to find (almost a week later) that I had been the victim of a confidence trick. As soon as the £4 or thereabouts transferred out of my bank account I watched the traffic to my site rocket.

I felt elated, I was getting several hundred more visitors than usual per day and they all appeared to be consuming content. Google analytics was fooled, and I was too. For the first few days of being listed, I watched the figures as I thought people were poring over my website consuming an average of two and a half blog posts each per visit. By the fourth day, it was apparent the increase was exponential and that all of these visitors to my site exhibited exactly the same patterns of behaviour.

I became suspicious and so, as an experiment, I put a Captcha on camzhu.com for the countries which sent the traffic. This is a filter that needs a human interaction to continue to the website. The site’s traffic dropped off by exactly the numbers it had risen by. Needless to say, I felt ripped off. At least it was only a matter of a few quid and not a significant amount of money.

Implications

It got me thinking though. I could have been duped for longer and let it roll on, believing that I had a new army of loyal readers. The entire web is crawled over by web crawlers but this was a targeted spamming of my site by whoever manages Blogarama. The entire process may be automated and that’s the worrying thing. An almost robotic process whereby website owners and bloggers pay a bit of money for a false increase in server traffic.

‘Social media is a virtual world that is filled with half bots, half real people’ – Rami Essaid

People interact with other real people through the digital interface that social media provides, but they also interact online both knowingly and unknowingly with bots. I have already talked elsewhere about some of the potential effects of social media on us as people. More generally, users of the internet tend to make decisions on what to watch based on how popular videos are, choose Facebook pages to view or support based on how many likes they have or retweet based on their apparent traction.

As a recent article in the NY Times explores, often these figures are inflated by bots watching, or bots liking things, or bots tweeting and retweeting. The figures are distortions, which skew perception and encourage certain behaviours. If I hadn’t got wise to my own falling for the confidence trick I would have made decisions based on the ‘artificial’ bot readership of my site. I may have invested an inappropriate amount of time and money thinking I could make some return due to the inflated numbers.

Distortions and Nemesis

Considering this happened to me, something similar could easily happen to any regular or even savvier user of the internet and on a larger scale. Building trust online is difficult and the amount of artificial activity with the potential to disrupt this trust is concerning. The distortions created by the actions of bots are creating minor ripples now but are likely to cause major waves in the future.

The term nemesis can mean a downfall brought about by an inescapable agent. Bots are an integral part of the internet but they may bring about many problems for us humans as we continue to increase our usage of the web. It would be strangely comic if our ultimate nemesis was not some obvious evil, hacker or virus but an essential and often unnoticed facet of the online world.