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'Virtual Unreality' helps to sort the true from the false on the Internet

NYU professor Charles Seife is meticulous in amassing much of what we know about the perils of the Internet.

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Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?
by Charles Seife,
Viking,
256 pp.

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“Because we’re all able to produce such professional-looking information, it’s getting harder to tell good from bad, professional from amateur, authority from ignoramus – and, even more alarming, reality from fiction.” 

So laments Charles Seife in Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the critically acclaimed “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea,” among other works. Strictly speaking, his latest book doesn’t include much that’s original, but Seife proves meticulous in amassing much of what we know about the perils of the Internet and explaining its significance for anyone trying to separate truth from falsehood. “Virtual Unreality” should be faulted for one major omission, but otherwise it is informed, nimble, endlessly quotable, and timely.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking parts of the book come in the form of the author’s warnings about the possible ramifications of the Internet’s emergence as “a great democratizer” of knowledge. The problem, Seife points out, is that “knowledge is inherently anti-democratic.… Facts are no less true if they’re unpopular – and it’s often the facts that the majority refuse to accept that are the most important.” 

Certain of Seife’s premonitions sound a bit too ominous. “We are at the beginning of an information famine,” he declares at one point. A little later, he adds that “over the next few years, even the news media may well become increasingly indistinguishable from spam.” Take such prognostications with a grain of salt if they seem portentous, but don’t fall into the trap of denying the myriad internet-related dangers that the author, in his characteristically deft and sometimes witty manner, highlights throughout “Virtual Unreality.”

Consider reinforcement theory, which posits that we often gravitate toward information that seconds our views. Seife shows how the Internet has strengthened this tendency by making every conceivable argument and idea, however half-baked, readily accessible. He also points out that Internet web sites and search engines have begun to exploit our innate desire for reinforcement by recommending items that jibe with our previous searches or selections – for example, articles or books advancing the same argument. “With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices,” he remarks, “we deprive ourselves of true information. We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back at us by the media.”

Seife guides the reader through various manifestations of this phenomenon. Like Lebanese-French novelist and essayist Amin Maalouf, who, in his nonfiction book “Disordered World,” bemoans the web’s creation of “global tribes,” Seife worries that the Internet has strengthened far-flung extremists by enabling them to establish contact with one another. But whereas Maalouf is interested in how people across the globe with the same ethno-religious “inherited allegiances” are uniting online, Seife shows how the Internet forges entirely new communities out of conspiracy-mongers and purveyors of scientifically discredited theories.

For the author, “the Internet doesn’t represent a revolution for free speech as much as a revolution in free audiences.” And media outlets have learned that in order to maximize those audiences, they must engage in “search-engine optimization.” SEO, as it’s called, consists of using simple keywords in your headline so that Google ranks your story first. Seife doesn’t hesitate to single out media giant AOL for the sloppy, SEO-oriented journalism of its “Seed” project, as well as “turn[ing] the newsgathering process on its head” by instructing its writers (in a now notorious leaked 2011 memo) to build stories around keywords trending on the Internet. He also blasts popular blog The Huffington Post (which AOL purchased in 2011) for some of its disreputable ploys to secure web traffic. Not only would the site churn out highly derivative articles, but it would trick Google into considering them the original or “canonical” source, meaning that, for a time, the search engine listed the HuffPo article above the one from which it took its information.  

Yet this book isn’t some sort of jeremiad; from the start, it emerges as multi-faceted. Alongside his cataloging of the various ways in which the Internet can fool us, Seife dispenses concrete advice on how we might “learn to see through the haze of unreality that’s settling around us.” (He even provides an appendix compressing his earlier recommendations into nuts and bolts.) Let’s consider a few basic examples.

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Don’t rely on Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, for accurate information. Also, note that if you pick up something false from a Wikipedia page and reproduce it in an article or blog, chances are that someone will see to it that the aforementioned Wikipedia page will then cite you as a source for its claims, creating “a particularly insidious kind of circular proof.”

Don’t always assume that people you’re corresponding with electronically are who they claim to be, especially if they ask you for money. You’ve probably grown accustomed to the Nigerian scam (a variation on the old Spanish prisoner swindle), but might fall for a similar email ostensibly from a friend. In such a situation, the message could have originated with someone who hacked into your friend’s account. Seife emphasizes the importance of trying to determine the origins of such messages through their IP addresses (he recommends consulting websites such as WhoIs.net and IP-Lookup.net).

Sometimes you’re not even dealing with a human. Chat rooms, dating sites, and Twitter overflow with computer-generated stand-ins for real people. In fact, dating sites have faced lawsuits alleging they employ software that creates fake accounts of women in order to lure men into signing up or subscribing. The author suggests putting the photo of the person you’re purportedly in touch with into a reverse-image search (on TinEye or GoogleImages) to find out whether it appears under other people’s names elsewhere, which would indicate that something is amiss.

For a book that seeks to make us aware of who and what might take advantage of us over the Internet, there is precious little here about government snooping. Seife briefly addresses attempts by China and the US to spy on adversaries – including each other – through sockpuppetry (false identities), as well as the police’s use of this method to catch suspected criminals. Yet what about governments spying on (their own) ordinary citizens? It is almost inconceivable that in the age of the Edward Snowden leaks, which revealed the extent of covert telephone and internet surveillance by the US’s National Security Agency, a book such as this one would not explore the issue.

Moreover, Seife worked briefly for the NSA in the early 1990s; following Snowden’s revelations, he published an article in Slate expressing his unease with the reluctance of his former colleagues to speak out about the agency’s encroachment on people’s private lives. Rather than revisit and expand on the NSA leaks controversy in his book, however, he chooses to omit discussion of the subject, leaving one with the feeling that “Virtual Unreality,” while an indispensable guide to almost everything sinister about the Internet, could have enjoyed even greater resonance.


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