20140104 The dangers of “internet-spread”

The recent example of a satirical article ascribing comments to the Pope, and the editorialising that surrounded those comments, is thought provoking and funny – but only if you know it’s a joke. Regrettably, the internet, due to the lack of ethics and honesty, to say nothing of in some cases downright malicious or self-promoting actions, of some users, means that the story has spread far and wide – without the warning that it’s satire.

It has, therefore, gained a substantial audience in Iran. And elsewhere in the world, educated and intelligent people, reading it on supposedly credible websites not known for satirical content, are accepting it as true.

The internet has proved to be a great leveller: it has afforded widespread access to material that would until very few years ago have been heavily restricted. But rights and responsibilities have not kept pace with the actions of what are proportionately few but numerically many.

Intellectual property rights are simply laughed at: in the USA, there is a statutory provision that it is not a breach of copyright to reproduce an extract for reasons of research or education. That has been taken far beyond its original intention and the blatant reproduction of entire works is commonplace. Websites which do nothing but reproduce copies of articles from newspapers or other websites exist for the sole purpose of gaining higher placing in search engines than, and therefore stealing the visitors of, the publication that incurred expense in generating that content. Why steal the visitors? It’s for the simple purpose of gaining “eyeballs,” the owners of which may click on adverts surrounding the stolen article, therefore generating revenue for the copyright-thief. Browse through YouTube: it is laden with admissions that the uploads are in breach of copyright – commonly by the publication of a supposed disclaimer saying “I do not own the copyright in this ….” There is no financial gain in such posting but the poster enjoys the “privilege” of being the modern equivalent of “being seen in print.”

In the media arena, copycat sites generate hits by the use of comment forms. To create a copycat site is ridiculously cheap: hosting can be free with the purchase of a domain name for about USD25.00 Many such sites do not care about the number or quality of the comments. Nor whether they are libellous, offensive or untrue. Many do not filter for spamverts – the posting of links to other websites for some other purpose which, because spamvert practitioners are often related to organised crime, may well be phishing or drive-by download sites. In short, the only purpose of the sites is to gather “hits” and hope some of those generate revenue via click-through advertising very often, it has to be said, click-per-view adverts positioned by Google as a result of its analysis of the stolen content which it has indexed in its search engine. But Google’s (and others) ways of profiting from the crimes of others is a story for another day.

There is a serious problem of credibility of content on the web. Ask most people if they believe everything they read and they will say no. Put them in front of a computer screen and it’s a different story. In an academic paper (“The use and abuse of the internet in fraud and money laundering,” 1999) I explained that we are conditioned to believe what we read on a computer screen. While the use of computers has diverged into social and business functions since then, the reality is that there is far too little scepticism applied to what is read on the web. And if the source is apparently credible, then the material is generally believed.

This is where the real danger lies. We do not know what sources are credible. We believe we can rely on the large international newspapers but even they have been taken in by people submitting false stories. The credibility of the old-fashioned newspaper is under serious threat as they battle to compete in what they still consider “new media.” It’s not new media: my group of companies began epublishing in 1999. In fact, we were one of the first few into the industry and, over time, we have developed a range of epublications which are either web only or only in electronic format. My own textbooks are available both in print and in ebook. So, I’m no stranger to the benefits and risks of e-media. And when writing this article, I do so as one who writes for major international media companies as well as for much smaller publishing businesses including our own; I write as a media strategist because as the owner of a publishing business, I have to be; I write as an editor who receives the work of others prior to publication and I write as a publisher. On the other hand, I write as a person who is frequently interviewed for a range of publications from global mass presence to tiny, from global broadcasters to local radio programmes. In short, I have an exposure to the subject matter that is comprehensive from both sides of the fence. I’m not, as one journalist recently called me “a fool” because I challenged an article that, in my view, was both factually inaccurate and misrepresented my views to my detriment: I know exactly what I’m talking about.

Here, I’m not overly concerned with the benefits of epublishing. Far too many people are promoting e-this and i-that for it to be worth my while. Here, I’m concerned with the risks.