From scam product ads to conspiracy theories, misinformation always adapts to survive

Author

Michael Marshall
Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He writes and lectures on the role of PR in the news, and interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast. In August 2020, he took over as Editor of The Skeptic.

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Since around 2010, I’ve been researching, writing and lecturing about the way in which advertising and PR intersect with and infect the media, to a point where you often can’t readily tell what’s genuine news and what’s PR originated nonsense, unless you learn how to spot certain signs.

Some signs are clearer than others – for instance, if you see a company name mentioned somewhat out of the blue in an article that isn’t about that company, there’s a reasonable chance that company paid somebody along the way for that story to appear. The goal is to smuggle the name of your product into your customer’s newspaper of choice, buried just far enough into an article that it looks like a plausible inclusion in the news story – around the fourth paragraph is the sweet spot, high enough to escape the editor’s cut, but not so high as to be conspicuous. That’s because one of the main goals of a certain type of commercial PR is to win the awareness battle: to make sure that when people are thinking about their needs or looking for something to solve a problem they have, they think of your product name first. With the article you’ve paid to place you can introduce that problem with the main hook of the story, and then explain that your product solves it, once the reader is a few paragraphs in and are invested in the article.

A stack of newspapers tied with string

But despite the Mail Online publishing up to 300 stories online every day, space in the mainstream news is actually at something of a premium; more to the point, space in the inboxes and the attention spans of journalists is also limited. So how does a company get its message in front of potential buyers when the media middleman is swamped and won’t play ball?

For a while, the answer was Search Engine Marketing and Keyword Marketing. If you weren’t going to be able to catch your buyer at the point where you’re introducing a problem to them, you could wait until they’ve come across the problem but try to make sure that when they go searching, it’s your solution that comes up. Sometimes that could be through a paid ad, but there was often a lot of competition to buy up the top advertising space, and the return was minimal, as people don’t typically pay attention to adverts in their search results. So people looked for other ways to ensure their website was high enough ranked that it essentially owned the search term.

An industry sprung up to offer Search Engine Optimisation, making false promises to guarantee a business would appear on the first page of Google – though their claims were often hugely misleading, and the techniques they employed were either ineffective or they were a short term exploitation of a loophole that Google soon adapted to fix.

As SEO proved to be ineffective, people tried to push their products up the ranking by building backlinks: if another website linked to yours, Google figured yours was a reasonable site, and nudged you up the list. The more times you were referred, the higher up you’d be nudged. People exploited this by creating link farms – vast pages of nothing but links – so Google tweaked their system again: the more reputable the website that referred to you, the higher up you’d be nudged. What constituted a “reputable” website was, as with all of Google’s algorithmic changes, a black box – but it ruled out websites that were nothing but a page of links, and it seemed to reward sites that seemed legit.

This is where Affiliate Marketing took off, and with it platforms like More Niche. When I first encountered it in 2011, More Niche was an affiliate marketing hub designed to push people to market specific products. People would sign up as an affiliate marketer, and when a company wanted to push their product, More Niche would alert their army of affiliate marketers and assign them each an affiliate code, along with some basic product copy and some product images. Typically in 2011 it was products like weightloss pills, goji berry juices, and later things like cryptocurrencies; things that almost certainly would have struggled to get any traction through mainstream media or PR.

Affiliate marketers were typically web developers who knew how to quickly set up sites, populate them with claims and content, and start trying to push them up the Google ranking by whatever means they felt might work – if it was a short term loophole exploit, that doesn’t matter because they were only looking to promote their site for a while, during the push for this particular product.

Multiple affiliates would sign up to products, and they’d all be given their own affiliate code – this tracked which affiliate had referred the traffic, so if a customer visited an affiliate site and then clicked through to make a purchase, More Niche could give the affiliate a small commission. The more users you persuaded to make a purchase, the more your commission would build up.

It was a tactic that worked, especially for those looking to game the Google system as it was at the time. Product owners could quickly access an army of developers who would compete to be the best salesperson possible for your product, in a way where you neither had to tell them what they could and couldn’t say, nor were you responsible for what they were saying. After all, you just needed to have a page where people could buy the product, and if someone else had a totally separate site that you had nothing to do with who was making all sorts of misleading claims about how wonderful your weight loss product was or how great the returns were on your investment scheme, you can’t be held accountable for any of that, can you?

As for the developers who were the affiliate marketers, they weren’t particularly bothered in the realities of the product, it was just the latest product to push – they’d throw up boilerplate one-page websites, buy up a load of domain names, and get competing to be the most successful marketer of that product. If one of their sites crossed the line – or, more accurately, if one of their many sites which crossed the line was spotted and reported – then it could just be taken down, and two more could be put up within minutes. It was a Hydra-like operation: cut off one referral site, and two more would take its place. There were leaderboards for who had been the top referrer for a particular product. It was competitive, and deliberately so.

This produced some interesting, and possibly predictable, effects: because you had a bank of tech-savvy people looking to outscore each other and treating this as a game as much as a money-making hobby. And they’d be searching for interesting ways to get an edge over each other. As affiliate marketers would unleash their suite of websites – each site slightly different, but often using similar copy, similar claims, similar images, and always their unique affiliate tracking code – some obvious trends would emerge. If the product was a weight loss supplement like Meratol, you’d see lots of sites appear called things like “buymeratolnow.com” and “meratolweightloss.com” and “meratolreviews.com” – all of which would tell you how great Meratol was as a weight loss pill.

A newspaper with the word Truth

But those selective pressures would kick in, and people would look for an edge. And so you’d then start to see other sites emerge, like “ismeratolascam.com” or “meratolfakedietpills.com” – sites which would explicitly insinuate that the product was a con, that it was ineffective and that you should be wary. When you clicked on the sites, they’d open with really big writing explaining why people think this wonderous new weightloss pill is actually a scam.

And these sites would be run by the affiliate marketers, too. You’d get halfway or further down the page, and at the end of explanations around why people think it might be a scam, it would explain that it’s actually legit, and worth a try, and actually you can buy the product for a really reasonable price if you clicked through on this link…

This, to me, was fascinating: that affiliate marketers would intentionally put out what looks like a negative exposé of the product they’re pushing. But fundamentally, it makes a lot of sense, because if you’re selling a scam product, and you think people might have their doubts about it, you know that they’re going to turn to Google with those doubts – and if you can own the space where they’re looking for information about their fears, you can herd them back to your fold rather than risk them coming across information that might make them question their purchase.

Now, MoreNiche claim to have updated their policies so that no false claims are allowed, and users will be suspended if they make any. How seriously do they take that commitment? I honestly can’t say. But this whole history, I think, can serve as a warning about how pseudoscientific arguments often thrive and spread by being savvy about their communication.

It’s partly why the Flat Earth movement grew so quickly on YouTube – they hit on how to describe what they’re objecting to in the language of the other side. I think of it when I look at how men’s rights activists and anti-feminists came to own the search terms on YouTube for things like gender pay gap, skewing the results to denialism videos so that when people might go looking for information on the issue, what they find is almost exclusively material explaining why the gender pay gap isn’t an issue, and ridiculing those who think it might be.

This is something that we should be particularly aware of right now, as we stand on the precipice of a potentially huge swell in the anti-vaccine movement, the closer we get to a viable Covid-19 vaccine. If, or when, a vaccine does become available, we’re going to find out very quickly that those people calling for Bill Gates to be tried for crimes against humanity, and the people who were burning down 5G masts, and the people gathering in city centres to decry the ‘illegal lockdown’ are actually most significantly anti-vaccine activists, and they’ve been laying the groundwork throughout this whole pandemic for a push against vaccines.

When you don’t have the truth as a foundation to build on, your whole idea has to rely on its ability to pass from person to person, to reach people and to convince them.

The thing that I am particularly concerned about is that these conspiracy theories excel at speaking in the language of the worried audience, of recognising their fears and concerns and finding out how to abate them – in a similar way to how those fake-exposé sites would spring up to anticipate the negative reactions of a section of the affiliate marketing audience, and to target them specifically. These conspiracy theories excel at that, in part, because they have to: when you don’t have the truth as a foundation to build on, your whole idea has to rely on its ability to pass from person to person, to reach people and to convince them.

Those selective pressures exist when it comes to the conveying of conspiracy theories, and sometimes those pressures hone their arguments – not to make them more true, but to make them more convincing, more engaging and more viral. If we’re not matching them on all those things, I worry that we’ll see the anti-vaccine movement make serious strides over the coming year.

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