On the internet, no one knows you are a dog. Close to 25 years after the iconic cartoon, this still holds true.
Back in 1993, illustrator Peter Steiner had little knowledge of this newfangled thing called “the Internet” or “World Wide Web”—but what he did know was that it was easy to throw up a screen and hide.
Interestingly, it remains the most reproduced cartoon in New Yorker history. Just ask the Washington Post:
“It endures now, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because that wariness never completely went away,” The Internet and its evolutionary offshoots like Twitter still have the potential for deception and Danger [sic].”
One would think that in the so called “Age of Transparency”, when people and corporations seemingly can’t hide, that today’s trope would be exactly the opposite… the Internet would be the one place where everyone would know you were a dog. And yet, fake news proliferates from equally fake sources, making the stories not just the work of demented individuals, but deliberate programs of deceit precisely because the internet doesn’t know who you are. As The Verge exemplifies:
“We might associate troll accounts with spam or weird visuals, but at least some of the accounts described by Mueller were backed up by full-scale identity theft. According to the indictment, defendants used stolen Social Security numbers to build entire false personas, complete with fraudulent photo IDs and PayPal accounts.”
Depending on whose numbers you believe, between 2-10% of Facebook’s total accounts are fake. On Instagram over 8%, and on Twitter, some 50 million accounts. Many of those accounts have aggregated enough followers to be ‘influencers’ …so much for the dogs.
And while global machinations keep us focused on Russia and the “barking dogs,” fake accounts are also dangerous to young kids and teens. Not to mention adults, as well as sexual predators and other bad folk, who ply their trade online luring the unsuspecting to abuse… and often to death.
Despite it all, with new automation applications making it even easier to steal identity and create multiple fake accounts, a study by the New York Times claims:
“Social media companies often fail to vigorously enforce their own policies against impersonation… enabling the spread of fake news and propaganda — and allowing a global black market in social identities to thrive on their platforms.”
Here is the conundrum. Crazy multiples are paid to companies who claim to use data to learn about you, to profile you and to target you, in ways that make your behavior seem almost pre-ordained. Yet it would seem I really might not know if you are a dog, after all.
So what do we do about it?
Actor Matt Damon, playing Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, said, “It’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” and perhaps that is part of the problem of our times. We still allow people to post vitriolic comments anonymously, with no consequence other than the hurt to the subject. And the “fleeting fame” of seeing your post and persona online feeds way too many nasty hidden folks. Please don’t use the argument that it enhances free speech, or allows the brave to get around media control. Free speech is a two-way obligation, and in countries where dictators kill people for speaking out, we get the point. Time to force the total transparency we pretend to.
Clearly, the predator issue needs to be addressed—with alacrity. It’s not enough to post instructions to be cautious and admonish kids to be safe. It often amazes me that the same people who rally around gun control don’t get the connection. The media platforms (Big Tech) own this one.
And of course, Fake News from Fake People…I honestly think that the ball needs to fall in our courts as well. Not that the platforms can’t do a better job (they can) but we need to educate our children: teach them how to think critically and spot evil. Do not abdicate this one to anyone else.
Sometimes it looks like my favorite philosopher had it right, all those years ago.
“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
- Groucho Marx
And there you have it.
What do you think?