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How Much Of The Internet Is Fake? A Lot.


In the last year, we've heard a lot about fake stuff online. Troll farms in Russia spread viral hoaxes to sway public opinion. Click farms in China download apps thousands of times to boost their ratings. It's reasonable to ask how much of the internet is fake. Max Read tried to answer that question in a piece for New York Magazine, and he joins us now. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: So let's start with a term that I learned from your article, the inversion. What is the inversion?

READ: The inversion is the point at which there's so much fakery going on that our natural ability to tell the difference between what's real and what's fake becomes inverted. And real things all of a sudden seem totally fake to us, and fake things have this sort of power and the presence of the real.

SHAPIRO: And as you write in this article, the Internet might have actually passed the inversion in some ways years ago. But you say that 2018 felt to you like the year that we passed the inversion. Why did 2018 feel to you like the year we crossed this threshold?

READ: It was just a year in which there was such a barrage of incidences of news stories both big and small that seemed to involve fakery at scales from the minute to the enormous. In November, for example, the Justice Department prosecuted a bunch of ad scammers who had more or less created a sort of simulacrum of the Internet where they had fake users making fake mouse movements, clicking on fake websites with fake social media profiles. And the only real thing on it was the ads.

This was also a year when deepfakes was debuted, this technology that allows you to fake videos in a way that really was previously unforeseen and for basically anybody with a desktop computer to do it. It was the kind of thing, once you start thinking about it in this way, everywhere you turn you were sort of like, is this real; is this not real? And at the end, I was sort of realizing every day, when I try to log into The New York Times, I am prodded by a little dialog box that asks me to prove that I'm human and not a bot.

SHAPIRO: Right, identify the photos with a motorcycle, or say what the numbers on the house are.

READ: Exactly. And all of a sudden, I'm thinking, well, gosh, am I real? Am I actually a bot?

SHAPIRO: Why should this matter to most people? I mean, if I like an Instagram account and that account has 500 followers and I think the photographs are beautiful, what do I care whether 400 of those followers are fake?

READ: My problem with it is that it has this corrosive effect on how we talk to each other, that if you start to understand how much of what you see online isn't what it represents itself to be, you start to see everything in that same way. If I can put a really minor example of it forward, I woke up this morning, and on Twitter somebody was going viral for accusing Netflix of having faked a bunch of viral memes about a new movie that they have.

And I looked into it a little bit, and I realized, no, these were all people who, shocking as it might be, really liked this movie "Bird Box." But we were so used to the idea that this is something that a company might do, that it might seed the world with these AstroTurfed, you know, crowd reactions or whatever that we weren't able to see that, no, these were just regular people who wanted to make jokes about something.

SHAPIRO: OK, so reading your article, at the end I felt like you had a lot of insights into everything that's fake online. And it seemed like some editor said, you have to answer the question, so what are we going to do about it?

READ: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And it doesn't seem like you have a great answer. So what are we going to do about it (laughter)?

READ: Well, I'm still trying to figure out if I'm a human or a bot.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

READ: So solving that is my first priority. You know, I think that the first thing is figuring out what's wrong, that we need to really focus on the idea that this is a problem not of lost truth, which is I know a very popular kind of idea, but that it's a problem of trust - that we no longer are able to trust in institutions, that we are no longer able to trust in each other. And trust requires networks. It requires a bunch of different people acting in different arenas to lean on one another and to trust one another.

So it can't just be a thing where we say, oh, Facebook and Google have to develop better technology because the truth is they have fantastic technology for detecting frauds and fakes. This has to be a thing where people in tech, people in media, people in politics and sort of people everywhere have to be willing to make changes in how they make money, make changes in how they approach people, users, consumers, voters and to recreate that sense of trust in society.

SHAPIRO: Max Read of New York Magazine talking with us about how much of the Internet is fake, thanks a lot.

READ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.