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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 30 August 2019, 4:00 pm

Science versus the internet

Good news for those of us who like science - social media player Pintrest will begin directing anyone searching for "vaccine-related information" to actual health websites rather than the crazy end of town.

This is good because as we've seen, anti-vaccine propaganda has a real cost in terms of human life and well-being. That a disease like measles is allowed to gain a foothold back in the community is ridiculous given how dangerous it is and how readily it's avoided. However, travellers to Auckland are now being warned to get immunised before they go because of the large number of infections currently attacking the population.

Yet sadly, anti-science websites outnumber actual science sites when it comes to these more entertaining areas, such as vaccines, autism and of course 5G. Despite there being plenty of obvious evidence that cellphones don't give users cancer (the dramatic lack of a spike in such things would be the most obvious), the tin-foil hat brigade continue to wave their ignorance like a flag, attacking even Consumer NZ for daring to suggest you shouldn't worry too much.

The problem lies in public perception and access to information. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pintrest and all the rest have a very visual medium in which to tell stories - something that's long since attracted all the marketing people like moths to a flame. But the organisations without mega budgets to deliver content (such as hospitals and government department) struggle to compete. We all see the stories about the number of marketing or PR people employed by councils or hospitals or ministries and how outrageous it is, and I fully support that world view. But when you're trying to get some kind of cut through in a world where anti-5G sites are popping up like mould on an Dunedin flat's bathroom wall, then it's no surprise to see some money being spent on public awareness campaigns.

But the real problem is the reach these social media giants give extreme content and that's where our policy makers need to focus their efforts. Pintrest is doing the right thing - it's high time the others joined in as well, and not just for vaccine information.

Reuters - Pinterest will direct vaccine searches to major health groups

CNet Video - Can 5G radiation make you sick? What we found

YouTube - 5G: Explained!

NZ Herald - Coromandel protesters rostered, take digger keys, to block Spark cell towers


Fake News

Which leads nicely into the subject of fake news and generally "passing off" as something other than you are.

Years ago there was a bit of a scam doing the rounds regarding domain name renewals.

Companies would receive renewal notices for their domains, typically on very formal looking letter head and dressed up so as to appear to be invoices.

These wouldn't be sent to the IT department but to accounts or finance departments where admin staff would either reject the invoice as being unsupported by a purchase order or just pay them.

Typically they would be paying the wrong company (that is, not the company which had registered the domain name for you) and would be paying an excessive amount.

We had a lot of fun calling them out over it and I did enjoy receiving a legal threat about inaccuracies in my story - all now lost to the dusts of time as the Computerworld database no longer goes back far enough to include the copy.

But that was then, and this is now and today's equivalent is the Viagogo ticket scam writ large.

Whereas Viagogo sells tickets that it doesn't have, claiming exclusivity that it might not have, at a price you shouldn't have anything to do with, anyone seeking to get a copy of their birth certificate is being offered an online service via "birth certificate" (I won't link to them here). For the bargain price of $69 the service will get your birth certificate from Births, Deaths and Marriages and ship it to you.

So far so good - except you can order a copy of your certificate from the government's own website for $33. The extra cost, presumably, goes a long way towards paying for the ad words to make sure the dodgy reseller's link appears at the top of the page on Google's results.

I've seen this elsewhere, with visas to the US and Viet Nam among others and while it's hardly going to stop traffic if you pay too much for your certificate, it does raise an issue.

What else are they doing with your credit card details and, given you've handed over enough info to get a birth certificate, all the rest of your Personally Identifiable Information (PII)? I think it's highly unlikely that the $30 or so they make from the scam is the real driver behind it - much more likely that they're harvesting your information and sharing far and wide.

And that's precisely why Google's own terms and conditions doesn't allow birth certificate or visa or passport application site advertising. Except that of course Google does take their money and run their ads.

Then we've got the fake news stories on Facebook (I know, they're all fake, but hear me out). Over there we've seen celebrities' faces used to sell all kinds of things from face cream to real estate regardless of whether they're involved in the product or not.

Now we're going one step further - combining these sales tactics with fake news stories to push bitcoin snake oil.

Broadcaster Mike Hosking has been used in one or two - as have several other prominent New Zealanders and that's just here. It's happening on a grand scale all around the world.

If anything can bring down the might of the social media giants it might be being sued by angry VIPs for misuse of their trade marked imagery.

Wouldn't that be ironic?

NZ Herald - Internal Affairs considering action over birth certificate resellers

NewstalkZB - Mike Hosking slams fake news scams using his profile

Computerworld - Domain name 'renewal' letters surface again (2008)


Dark Side

The dark side

Rounding out this week's "dark side of the internet" theme must surely be Stuff's interactive documentary about 8Chan.

Part of its Circuit series, the documentary covers a lot of ground and is a credit to the makers for its thoroughness. The delivery style is a bit overblown for my minimalist tastes but you can click around and see interviews and chunks from the documentary or just watch the whole thing.

We really do have a problem if 8Chan is anything to go by. It's not the medium that's at fault but the accessibility and the reach. Anyone can read this stuff, without any kind of boundaries being put in place. When I was a lad (in the old country, in the previous century etc) R18 materials were kept well away from non-R18 eyeballs but of course that's long since evaporated as a concept. Today, radicalisation of views takes place in minutes and before your very eyes and we should all be alarmed by it.

We should also be alarmed by the alternative, of course. Government sanctioned and actioned news is not ideal either. History tells us that way lies some pretty awful outcomes, but currently it's hard to see how that would be much different to the fully liberalised approach we have around us today.

All I know is this is a battle that needs to be addressed and quickly, before we lose another generation to the fake news, anti-truth darkness that generates clicks and money for social media giants.

Stuff Circuit - Infinite Evil


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Ron Segal 01 September 2019, 9:17 am

Re science versus the internet - The battle to address is surely how to think in a 'king's new clothes' world.

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