Catfishing The Future

I watched the movie Catfish the other night. Creators Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have drawn public attention to the ways social media enables the liars among us to construct and enact elaborate falsehoods. The film, and the eponymous television show the Schulman brothers have created for MTV, concentrate on romantic and friendship hoaxes. Manti Te’o has recently been the victim of  such a hoax. But can an entire society get “catfished”?

Social media enables a lie to spread at the speed of light before the truth has its boots on; even when it moves at light speed too, often the truth never quite catches up. With Web 2.0, we are more vulnerable to public and private hoaxes than ever before. For instance, social media lets a short-seller drive down the value of your company:

U.S. market regulators are trying to determine if a message posted on a hoax Twitter account this week was used as part of a securities fraud scheme, The Huffington Post has learned. The inquiry will be looking at tweets, sent Tuesday from an account thinly disguised as that of a well-known equity research group, that contained false information regarding Silicon Valley company Audience Inc. The tweets caused a violent sell-off in the stock of that company Tuesday afternoon, which some market participants noted was likely intensified by high-frequency trading robots.

The misuse of communications technology to commit fraud and “catfish” people is not actually new, as 19th Century criminals and hoaxers used the telegraph. As Ben Zimmer reported in the Boston Globe last week, the story behind the term “catfishing” is itself a hoax from an earlier age:

In those days, the catfish story served a moralistic purpose, but it had nothing to do with matters of the heart. Even then, though, there were romantic frauds—and a need to name them. A full-page New York Times Magazine article in 1910 told of “poor George Osborne,” a Connecticut bachelor who had been deceived for many years into thinking that he was writing love letters to his sweetheart, when in fact it was an elaborate ploy by his neighbor to bilk him.

Today’s technology simply makes it easier than ever to pull off these schemes and potentially allows the effect of falsehoods to cascade at a larger scale. The fakery is the same; the difference between then and now is quantitative, not qualitative.

But the use of Twitter is a new take on an old scam, Kouwe notes. A day after the Audience debacle, a similar event occurred when a tweet from the account of @citreonresearc, which mimics the name of noted firm Citron Research, accused biopharmaceutical company Sarepta Therapeutics of being a fraud.

The stock dropped over 9 percent in a matter of seconds.

Just when you thought that grandma was wise to the Nigerian prince scam, the scam artist has found her on Facebook. The rest of this decade will see increasing attention to mitigation of these risks. Software will alert image managers to social media accounts mimicking their brands; public and private entities will invest even more in social media intelligence-gathering; politicians will propose legislation. Every part of human society will have to get smarter about social media.

For example, universities will try to harden their students against scandal:

“We took this really beautiful picture of her and she went out and baited some of our student-athletes, some of the guys into having an online relationship,” Brandon told the audience. “Baited them into doing all kinds of things and saying all kinds of things.”

The unnamed woman turned over to athletic department officials posts and comments that were made, and the names of student-athletes. During a presentation to Michigan’s student-athletes regarding social media awareness, the athletic department introduced the woman to the student athletes.

With a little knowledge and time, one person can create an entire company on LinkedIn, complete with personnel profiles connecting to real professionals as well as other fake ones. Persona management software will democratize the ability of anyone, anywhere to pull off a complex social media hoax. Many will have the best of intentions. It has already been over three years since “Robin Sage” embarrassed the intelligence industry:

According to the paper Thomas Ryan wrote about the experiment, he used the Robin Sage profile to establish connections with “executives at government entities such as the NSA, DOD and Military Intelligence groups. Other friends came from Global 500 corporations. Throughout the experiment Robin was offered gifts, government and corporate jobs, and options to speak at a variety of security conferences.” Thomas concluded that “the propagation of a false identity via social networking websites can be rampant and viral.”

There is no going back. Right now, someone may already be creating a Wall Street social media scam to dwarf Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The next Sam Bacile is perhaps scripting a viral YouTube video to instigate riots, or even start a war, as you read this. Our unlimited electronic horizons are also theirs.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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