An Economy of Deception

Max Read, writing for New York magazine:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. 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.”

And it’s not just traffic. The article highlights other aspects of online life that aren’t what they appear to be, from businesses and content to the people behind them. As participants in digital information environments, we must increasingly grapple with thorny philosophical questions. What is real? Who is a person? What’s trustworthy?

This situation isn’t inherent to digital information environments. It’s the result of bad incentive structures. Trafficking in advertising — the buying and selling of human attention — has had pernicious effects on the internet. It’s created an economy of deception in one of the most beautiful systems our species has created.

How Much of the Internet Is Fake?