Monday, August 20, 2012

News websites deal with the fringe, meanwhile the fringe get fed a daily dose of crazy from scammers

The comments of one crazy candidate for the U.S. Senate are getting loads of attention this morning. But newspapers, and other news websites, have been dealing with the crazy for quite a long time, and many have succumbed to a flood of comments from those on the fringes of the political spectrum.

In case you are not up to date: the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Todd Akin, running against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, inserted his foot into his mouth so far during an interview with a local television station that he will be spending the rest of the week extracting it.

During an interview candidate Akin attempted to justify his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape: "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Signal the fireworks to begin.

Today, presidential candidate Mitt Romney distanced himself, or at least tried to distance himself from Akin. Romney went so far as to say that abortion, in the case of rape, is justified.

I can tell you that this won't go down well with the far right who are rather dogmatic on this issue.

But that is not what got my attention this morning. What I noticed  was a Twitter thread by someone from Missouri who was not very happy with Akin's point of view. The person was forced to block users who were flaming the account. Who were these people? And do they really hold the extreme views they were tweeting?

Following the threads and looking at these Twitter users tweets, one found a boat load of links to crazy articles posted on strange websites, websites with names that were very unfamiliar. No, these sites were not right-wing political sites, but sites that were created specifically to host these crazy stories – stories such as the one that says the Supreme Court is currently hearing a secret case that will prove that President Obama was born overseas and came to the U.S. as an exchange student.

OK, so it's a wild story. But why is it online? A couple more clicks provided my answer. It was a phishing website, created to lure the most gullible web users. The thinking must be that if you are a birther you probably will believe anything.

(Sorry for the lack of links, but I hope you will understand that I don't want to out the Twitter user, or drive traffic to clearly bogus websites.)

This hits home. There is someone in my family who is especially susceptible to Internet scams. For whatever reason, this person seems to be lacking a gene that allows them to recognize a scam that would be obvious to anyone else. This has led me to want to learn more about Internet scams.

It turns out that Microsoft is interested, as well.

Nicholas Thompson, writing for The New Yorker, tells of a study conducted that answers the basic question of why many of these email and Internet scams are so outrageous. Why would anyone fall for an email scam that starts out with "I'm from Nigeria?"

The answer is simple: very, very few do fall for the scam. But the few that do are the most vulnerable, the most trusting, the ones with that metaphorical gene missing that helps them sniff out fraud. If you send you a million emails, after all, you don't want to get thousands of replies, you only want the few that will lead to the money.

Where do these scammers find their prey? Now I know of at least one place, birther websites.

One might feel a bit smug and dismiss the people who would click on a website simply because it claims the President is a foreigner. But these same people end up on the websites of local and national newspapers posting comments. They attend political meetings, and shout at their representatives. One party, in particular, is having to deal with enough of these crazies that they appear to be influencing local primary elections.

The New York Times clearly is cognizant of the problem. It moderates the comments on its website to a degree that a comment may take hours to appear. As a result, it is virtually impossible to have a conversation on its site – a comment that appears now was posted hours ago, my reply won't appear for hours.

Other news sites, such as the Washington Post, moderates its comments with a lighter hand. But the result is that the comments thread can quickly become a flame war, and move more and more in the direction crazy.

Many political commentators have asked who is backing this move to the crazy, is it being funded by corporate interests, for instance. Those on the left, in particular, see dark forces such as the Koch brothers at work – those on the right generally point to George Soros.

I have no doubt that monied interests are feeding some of this, but it clear that those looking to make a quick buck are also playing the field. That article about the secret Supreme Court case seems invite the reader to clink over to a phishing website, for instance. That story has now been forwarded to thousands of potential victims by one true believer. Few will actually fall for the scheme. But they have targeted an audience for a reason, a group they think is the most vulnerable.