book cover: Virtual Unreality

For a book about how the internet is ruining everything (journalism, our minds, the nature of truth itself), Charles Seife’s Virtual Reality is a lot of fun: It includes, among other things, a spirited history of spam messaging, complete with a footnote lamenting the paucity of “statistics on what proportion of spam was aimed directly at the male organ.”

Seife may be a doomsayer, but he’s got a sense of humor.

And to illustrate his central point—that the web is a devastatingly efficient tool for spreading lies—the NYU journalism professor offers a compendium of some of the best (worst?) and most amusing internet hoaxes in history.

Some of these—such as the story about Philip Roth’s failed attempt to get a false claim about the inspiration for Coleman Silk, the protagonist of his novel The Human Stain, permanently removed from Wikipedia—inspire sympathy or even outrage on behalf of their victims. One cringes, for example, to imagine how South Africans must’ve felt in 1999, when their president, duped by pseudoscientific HIV-denialist websites he’d stumbled upon, began expressing public doubts about the safety and efficacy of antiviral drugs.

Others elicit something between vicarious embarrassment and gleeful schadenfreude. Falling for a Russian girl with bad grammar, only to find out your new online girlfriend is a machine? A tough break. And don’t forget the time University of Edinburgh PhD student Tom MacMaster got the the Guardian and the New York Times, among many other news outlets, to lament the alleged kidnapping in Damascas of a lesbian Syrian-American blogger who turned out not to be real: She was nothing more than a puppet MacMaster had created to champion his own political views.

Between cautionary tales, Seife, a science writer by trade, turns to whimsical biological metaphors to describe the unseen and (usually malevolent) forces shaping our increasingly digital existence. Email scams and spam filters, he writes, are like gazelles chased by cheetahs; as one species becomes faster and cleverer, the other evolves to keep up. Apps like Foursquare and Instagram, which reward us for broadcasting personal information we wouldn’t otherwise part with willingly, have something in common with parasites that “co-opt an organism’s brain and turn it against him.”

But Seife’s most troubling assertion might be that, between Google, the content farms that produce bogus articles around popular keyword searches, and the online newspapers and magazines that have started down the rabbit hole of search-engine optimization, “the target for a news story is not really a human, but an algorithm.”

That companies are fiercely competing for our pageviews (and—surprise!—profit, through advertising revenue) doesn’t exactly come as a shock. But Seife makes a darker and more nuanced case for how questions about what we want or need as readers are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the whole enterprise.

Feeling a little panicky, NYU Stories recently sat down to talk with Seife about the threat of human obsolescence(!) and what’s at stake—both for writers and for readers—when we can’t resist the urge to check out the latest slapdash listicle making the rounds on Facebook. (No. 10 on Seife’s cheeky Top Ten Dicta of the Internet Skeptic? “Top Ten Lists Are Just Marketing Gimmicks Intended for Suckers.”) 

—Eileen Reynolds

photo: Charles Seife

You make search-engine optimization sound really sinister—but doesn’t everyone do it? And if humans are still the ones typing in the search terms and reading what pops up, what’s so bad about Google, anyway?
I think it’s a matter of power. One of the themes of the book is that there’s so much digital information out there that we need algorithmic computer help to look through it, to sort it, to find things. And so we have these tools that help us do that. This is fine and good. The problem occurs when the people who control those tools can affect what we find—and, in a very concrete way, affect our view of the world. In some ways the Internet is like a new body sense, but unlike our other senses, it’s being mediated by other people. Imagine if you gave a corporation the ability to affect your sight or what you hear!

The problem with SEO is that the people who are producing media have realized that the power has shifted from the reader to the searcher. The reader wants information—stories of various sorts—whereas search engines and content providers would be happy providing utter garbage that would fool the reader into clicking on it. And if you think about it, that’s what click-bait is: The headline reads “You Won’t Believe This Amazing Secret,” and then you click on it and it’s really sort of mundane, and you’re pissed off. But because you clicked on it, it appears higher in the search for the next person.

Say you have a really good piece of real, investigative journalism or thoughtful criticism. Should you feel guilty about using SEO to get people to read it?
You want your piece to get as much exposure as possible, and to get more exposure you do an SEO-crafted headline. Is changing the word of a headline such a bad thing? No. What about changing the first paragraph? Okay, it’s not such a huge deal. What about changing the content? Well...that’s what’s going on—we’re seeing changes in content. Journalism, which used to be about presenting people with novel stuff that they hadn’t seen before, is now about taking what people are proven to want to see and presenting them with more of it because it’s guaranteed hits. So no, a little SEO never harmed anyone, but there is a vast bottom after you start going in that direction.

But newspapers have had salacious headlines forever! Wasn’t the old philosophy something like “come for the gossip, stay for the news”?
Before the internet, lurid gossip existed side-by-side with high-minded investigative journalism, and people wanted the whole package—you’d buy a newspaper because you couldn’t do without the latest celebrity headlines, but then you’d also end up seeing the rest of it. As we go through what’s called “the great unbundling,” though, more and more individual pieces of information are sitting outside of a collection. I think very few people read the New York Times anymore and consider it a packet—it’s a bunch articles that they come across from various angles. Yes, you might be attracted to the website by one thing and then bump around a little bit, but it’s not really like reading a newspaper. For many publications, the argument goes, “Yeah, we’re doing stuff that’s garbage and borderline unethical, but we have a higher purpose for doing it. And our readers can tell the difference between the garbage and the real stuff.” But as popular as that line of reasoning is in the industry, I don’t think it holds up. It’s a moral justification for a race to the bottom.

Is that kind of thinking affecting print and broadcast journalism as well as the online kind?
Yes! Diane Sawyer interrupts her broadcast to show you the viral video of the really cute Labrador retriever puppy playing with a penguin, or whatever. When we depend on cute fuzzy kitten pictures to attract people, our journalistic skills are no longer important. Anyone can do that. So why pay a journalist?

People are always lamenting/predicting/anticipating the death of journalism. Do you think we’ll eventually reach the ultimate low point, realize we don’t want to read junk anymore, and then initiate some kind of renaissance?
I think there’s already a backlash. The question is when will the backlash have enough force to start pushing the trend back? Look at a place like ProPublica, which does nothing but great investigative reporting, bucking the trend. But one of the things about ProPublica is it’s highly dependent upon a rich donor. Until people see money in doing work like that, it’s not going to take off—and I’m afraid right now that the money right now lies in automation, quick turnaround, cheap work, and spotting trends and following them rather than setting your own. But journalism is inherently cyclical. There was yellow journalism, there was an era in which hoaxes in newspapers were very common, and then we emerged from all that into a golden age of journalism. The fact that the golden age may be over? Well, that’s life. Things change. Does it mean the end of journalism forever? No. Will there be another golden age? Probably.