In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.
The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.
How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”
In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.
The metrics are fake.
Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles.
Can we still trust the metrics? After the Inversion, what’s the point? Even when we put our faith in their accuracy, there’s something not quite real about them: My favorite statistic this year was Facebook’s claim that 75 million people watched at least a minute of Facebook Watch videos every day — though, as Facebook admitted, the 60 seconds in that one minute didn’t need to be watched consecutively. Real videos, real people, fake minutes.
The people are fake.
And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.
I never tire of looking at videos of Chinese click farms. It's just so surreal to see hundreds of phones playing the same video for the purposes of fake engagment. pic.twitter.com/bHAGLqRqVb
— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) December 10, 2018