Lo and Behold

January 12, 2017   |   Craig Strydom

The Internet of 2016 and the battle with the truth.

If we are to believe Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, the superb 2016 documentary by Werner Herzog, the historic first moment of internet connectivity was beset by a ghost in the machine. On October 29, 1969, as the ITT device sent off its historic ‘first’ message from UCLA to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute, a glitch in the system meant that only the ‘lo’ of ‘log in’ was transmitted. This meant that curiously, the first message ever sent on the internet was the word, ‘lo.’ As in ‘lo and behold!’

Turns out ‘lo’ was an unintentionally promising word to herald in a new age – an age of internet connectivity designed for a community that trusted one another. It is hard to believe that the early internet was built on anything less than mutual trust and a desire for communality. “We couldn’t have asked for a more succinct, more powerful, more prophetic message, than ‘lo’” says Leonard Kleinrock, the internet pioneer featured in the film. But now, after all that has transpired in 2016, the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘trust’ on the Internet, are seriously being questioned.

The Truth Meets Its Match

Porn and identity theft aside, 2016 might be the year in which the Internet was finally subjugated for reasons that do not include ‘truth’ and ‘trust’? In 2016, the world witnessed an upsurge in fake news for political gain, or otherwise (it is hard to tell, since the leading sponsor of fake news turned out to be a liberal democrat.) The year also saw the once principled WikiLeaks break its pledge of non-partisan, apolitical transparency by releasing information with an intended political – if not vindictive – motive. In addition, the world witnessed the alleged hacking of websites and email accounts of political parties by foreign adversaries, with the intent of swaying the US elections, the act itself a form of truth-molding.

According to Sam Curry, a security analyst, “governments [can now] achieve all the same effects they would for foreign affairs, without having to rely on tools of war. It’s another tool at the table, and [since] war is an extension of politics by other means, well now there’s another one, with much less risk, easier to fund, and it puts even some smaller nation states on the same playing field as some larger ones.” He goes on to say that dozens of nation states now can hack others, and they use this as an extension of foreign policy.

So much for ‘an Internet designed for a community that trusts one another.’

Why Should Brands Care?

The answer is simple. Nothing legitimizes fake news better than real ads from bona fide companies, one of which might be yours. Turns out many brands discovered their ads were being featured on websites that play host to fake news – not-to-mention sites that many would claim are bigoted or racist – without them knowing it. The reason for this is as startling as it is simple. ‘Programmatic ads,’ per research firm eMarketer, is the kind of advertising that is ‘bought with little human oversight.’ Joshua Zeitz, from AppNexus explained it to the NYT, “When you click on a link, in less than a second, a call goes out, and algorithms and automated software bid in an auction to put their advertisement up on your page.” Turns out the algorithm that places the highest bid wins the chance to appear on your screen. And voila, without you knowing it, it could be your brand ad on the site.

Necessity is the Mother of Intervention

Because of this struggle with the truth, several new digital innovations are now in play. Sleeping Giants is an organization that grew out of this confusion. In a new form of activism, Sleeping Giants encourages Internet users to take a screenshot of an ad next to the undesirable content, and then to tweet the screenshot to the company in question with a polite, non-offensive note to notify them of the placement. Similarly, in yet another innovation, the Washington Post created a Chrome add on called RealDonaldContext (@realDonaldCntxt) designed to ‘add more context or corrections’ to the new President Elect’s often, ‘hit and run’ tweets.

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A New Beginning

Perhaps the solution with ‘disinformedia,’ as it should be rightly termed, lies outside of the Internet and within ourselves. Only when web users spend more time being present in the real world and less in the internet world, will this change. Or, as it is succinctly put in the documentary, ‘Lo and Behold’, “if the internet shuts down, will people remember how they used to live before that?”

*Banner photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.