As more of our lives than ever are lived online, we rely more on online metrics and information. From likes and shares, to the news we read, how much of this digital information is reliable or real?
As the war in Ukraine has shown us, there is more call than ever to be wary of our information sources. In fact, wherever you are, chances are you’ve had some interaction with fake traffic online.
So how does this type of fake online traffic affect us in our day to day (real world) lives?
We’ll take a quick look at the types of fake traffic online, and how they impact us, our communities and the world.
Fake likes/social engagement
Not getting enough likes on your Instagram posts? Wish you had more re-tweets on Twitter? Well, you can always pay for it.
Fake likes and social media engagement have become one of the more insidious problems online. Although it might seem innocent to buy a few thousand likes, the knock-on effects of this fake traffic are actually pretty huge.
For example, it’s easy for someone to buy followers so that they can become an influencer and then leverage this power to con brands out of advertising. Considering that influencers can make thousands of dollars each month, these fake followers can be lucrative. Unless you’re the one doing the advertising, in which case you’re losing money by partnering with a fake influencer.
This form of fake traffic doesn’t just con advertisers either. People following fake influencers might think that a supposedly popular post has gained traction for legitimate reasons – but in fact is part of an elaborate con.
An example of this is the rise of scam crypto influencers. Many will ‘shill’ (aka promote) a project which, often for money. They will then inflate the engagement on their posts about this effectively worthless crypto project and then take a big bag of profit while their followers are left holding a worthless scam coin.
The Ukraine war has highlighted the world of troll factories, although it was something known to most people before. For those not in the know, troll factories are sources of misinformation or disinformation.
The Internet Research Agency is the best known Russian troll factory, and has been found to be behind a number of divisive campaigns. It’s been found that the Russian troll factories had a hand in the rise of the alt-right and Trump, Brexit and a number of other culturally divisive campaigns.
One study even finds that Troll factories aligned with the Kremlin hired bots to massively inflate engagement and reach. (source)
Interesting fact: fake news is spread much more widely than genuine facts. It’s been suggested that this is down to the sensationalist or clickbait nature of fake news, rather than the more lucid (and perhaps more ‘boring’) actual facts.
The upshot of all this? Fake online traffic has been instrumental in the current divisions in American society, especially the extreme partisanship of the right vs left. It also has had a hand in issues such as Brexit, the Ukraine war, the rise of Islamic extremism and much more.
Perhaps one of the major elements for the common person is the issue of digital security. Fake traffic online has had a hand in this through the use of web scrapers, collecting information and data about us and our online behaviours.
The most common way this has happened is via brute force attacks, where bots will attempt to login to unsecured online accounts to steal personal information or payment details. If you have ever wondered why we now need ridiculously complex passwords for even the most obscure account, this is why…
The average password can be broken in seconds. Known as a dictionary attack, a hacker can buy a bot that will attempt to login to an account using popular passwords or regular words (e.g: password, 12345678, qwerty etc).
With this access, hackers can then access other accounts, steal payment information, social security numbers and much more.
So if you’re one of those people who uses a simple password, and the same password across multiple accounts, you should make it a priority to change your passwords for more secure versions.
Another issue is the use of spam emails to spread virus downloads or links. Be aware that spam is often a portal for viruses and botnets to infiltrate your devices.
Bots can be used for a huge variety of online scams, from phishing (Nigerian Prince emails for example) to digital ad fraud. This latter form of fraud is where bots are used to interact with paid ads, costing advertisers millions while scammers pocket the change.
Websites can also be bombarded with invalid traffic (the collective term for non-human web traffic) which can cause issues with the website, fraudulently order inventory items or simple spam up the businesses marketing contacts.
In short, it’s a problem that impacts business owners the world over. Anyone running an online business will likely have experienced some form of invalid traffic, from spambots to fake orders or rapidly spent advertising budgets.
Avoiding fake traffic
In general, fake traffic online is a problem that remains here to stay and is growing rapidly. The first step in combatting it is awareness…
We should always question the motives of whatever we see on social media. Sensationalist claims about people’s attempts to diminish our freedoms are often a cover for another form of agenda.
Business owners should ensure they use some form of bot protection on their business websites. And as internet users, we should always use complex passwords and practice caution when downloading attachments or clicking links.