Shucksters are wielding fake news to achieve a variety of diverse ends in the tech world
On January 4, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg declared he would spend the rest of the year trying to fix Facebook’s growing issues, including everything from abuse and hate from fellow users to “interference by nation states.” The latter, of course, alludes in part to the rise of fake news spread by governments, their supporters, and other extremists, all of which is designed to sway readers ideologically one way or another.
But this problem of fake news is much bigger than even Mark Zuckerberg may have anticipated when setting his New Years resolution, and it’s one I experienced first-hand as a startup founder in Southeast Asia. Yes, I have news about fake news: It’s no longer confined to just the political realm. Fake news is now becoming par course for the once seemingly remote world of startups, founders, and venture capital.
Shucksters are wielding fake news to achieve a variety of diverse ends in the tech world. In January of this year, a Twitter account masquerading as belonging to founder John McAfee promoted new cryptocurrency GVT, sending its value soaring from $30 to $45, in a classic pump and dump. In late 2016, Unilad broadcast a Facebook live video of a space walk on the International Space Station that had actually occurred three years earlier, which has collected more than 20 million views to date for the digital publisher.
In 2015, food-tech company Hampton Creek had employees and contractors buy its eggless mayo product from retailers to create a much more favorable sales impression. Of this fake-it-till-you-make it attitude, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure said, “You know the saying ‘There’s a fine line between genius and insanity’? There’s probably a fine line between entrepreneurship and criminality.”
But fake news in the startup and tech ecosystem is perhaps most dangerous when its aims are far less clear than either money, reach, or influence, as I experienced at the tail end of last year. Micab, my taxi-hailing application based out of the Philippines, had just announced our expansion from our headquarters in Cebu City to the national capital region, where we would roll out a combined fleet of over 7,000 over the next year.
Shortly after our announcement, this screenshot circulated online:
The driver’s note translates to “sir, it’s traffic there, just add 50 pesos,” (approximately 1 US dollar). This screenshot is thus supposed to portray the much hated practice of taxi drivers asking for additional payment on top of the metered fare, and it was successful in rousing the ire of Filipino netizens online. Micab was bashed on forums, social media, and motoring websites for creating a solution that perpetuates the status quo rather than breaking it (notably and thankfully, no prominent figures from our country’s tech ecosystem shared the post).
There was one little problem. The screenshot was completely fictitious, a fact apparent even in the language – the “driver” uses Tagalog, but the vernacular in Cebu, where the supposed request occurs, is Cebuano or English. The dead give-away is the “negotiate” button, which implies our app only makes it easier for cab drivers to squeeze more money from their passengers. This feature has never existed and will never exist. The screenshot was a Photoshop (compare it to an undoctored one below), and by the way it was aggressively circulated online to the tech-savvy audience of Filipinos who form our audience, this was no teenage prank. There was high level coordination from multiple actors behind these efforts, backed by the same malice in a denial-of-service attack. Except this campaign was an attack on our very brand.
This is what the Micab app really looks like:
As a startup founder, my first impulse was to go vigilante: I should find a way to unmask the perpetrators behind the smear campaign, so they could face the collective justice of the worldwide startup and tech community. But as I tried to trace the spread of the Photoshopped post to its source, I came to realise the futility of my detective work. Just as Mark Zuckerberg outlined in his post about fixing Facebook, there is a push and pull between the forces of centralisation and decentralisation going on in technology today, and one of the areas hardest hit in my estimation is news.
News is decentralised now more than ever before, and we’ve lost one of the most basic yet underappreciated facts of editorial oversight: the ability to put a name to an article. Given that I would never be able to attribute the Photoshopped screenshot to an entity, much less a single person, I accepted – I’ll admit, begrudgingly at first – that my time would be best served by focusing on our users and educating them on what we hope to achieve and how we are going about doing so.
Thankfully, startup founders like myself are no longer alone in this fight — there is now a cottage industry dedicated to fighting fake news. In addition to the efforts of giants like Facebook to police their own platforms, there are a growing number of startups who are taking measures into their own hands.
The Mark Cuban-backed Factmata combines both artificial intelligence and crowdsourcing toward the problem, while Storyzy gives users a tool to validate the authenticity of quotes. Revel focuses on authenticating identities, driven by the idea that it’s the internet’s anonymity that leads to most abuses, fake news included. And then there’s media accelerator Matter based in San Francisco that wants to back even more of these anti-fake-news startups.
Yet even in light of all these efforts, it’s still ultimately the founder’s responsibility to address fake news, and that’s why startup founders across the world need to take note of what happened to me and realise three things: The very digital channels that make it easy for us to build our brand also make it easy for others to try to tear it down.
When you find yourself face-to-face for the first time with fake news that goes against your brand, your best course of action in regards to the perpetrators is none. You should not bother to go after them, or worse, try to fight fire with fire. You should instead redouble your efforts toward your product, your users, and your community because now you know that everything you’re doing, all of it, is working, even if it may not seem to you during the daily grind of hustling and executing.
Why? Someone in your industry felt you were such a threat to their business that their only remaining course of action was to sit there and doctor photos of your app, or engage in some other nefarious activity. You can look at their output as fake news, but I recommend that you take it for what it really is: market validation.
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