“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”, goes the old saying. It’s no less true today and even more so when it comes to what appears online.
We’ve all become familiar with the phenomenon of fake news to some degree, but how many of us have heard of sham news? Very few, I’m betting.
Like of millions of others, I subscribe to so-called news feeds. These are online apps designed to collate stories from authoritative sources and which match my stated subject preferences.
Although mostly useful, they sometimes aren’t too discerning and there tends to be a lot of adverts - but that’s how they make their money, after all.
Of course it’s up to you to decide where you get your news. We all usually favour particular titles based on whereabouts in the political spectrum the publishers are located. Then again, we may also prefer local to national content.
Another factor is whether we want free news or are prepared to pay a subscription.
But what if your site looks and reads like something genuine but isn’t?
For example, if you came across a professionally produced site called ‘forbesbusinessinsider.com’ then you’d reasonably assume that it was a spin-off or collaboration between the well-known news outlets of Forbes and Business Insider.
In reality – and as recently revealed by investigative journalists - it's a site that copies and pastes articles from other publishers and then reposts them with minor changes.
This practice is a lot more common than you think. It’s estimated that there are 350 million registered domain names on the internet. It’s impossible to say how many are sham news sites.
So what’s the deal? Well, just like genuine websites, these sham versions can draw down big money from the tech companies that sell online advertising.
Once launched, operators make sure the readership numbers are boosted by ‘bots’ (automated software) that pump up web traffic, turning what looks at first glimpse to be an authentic site into something very appealing to advertisers.
An example of boosting cited by web watchers is the laredotribune.com news page which purports to operate in the Texas town of Laredo and saw 200,000 page views rise to 3.7 million visits just three months later.
A tell-tale sign of a sham news site from a user perspective is the absence of dates and attribution. Many are poorly maintained and littered with hidden ‘clickbait’ links that send you off unexpectedly to an advertiser’s webpage.
But besides the obvious fraud element, there’s also a darker side. Quite a number contain the added risk of ‘malware’ traps. These are seemingly harmless fun items but which when clicked allow software to access your computer and pilfer personal details such as passwords and bank details.
The internet is a dangerous place and security safeguards are an absolute must.
Even so, the question has to be asked that now this scam has been widely exposed, why do tech giants like Google and Amazon continue to cough up huge amounts in advertising to patently fraudulent websites?
Answers are so far unforthcoming - but we can probably guess.