Wednesday, January 30

Catching Catfish: Always Vet The Data

Some people never feel the need to be anonymous, online or off. But other people do, with their intent ranging from noble to malignant or their reasons ranging from convenience to pre-existing community standards (e.g., most people use creative avatars and punchy screen names). It's increasingly accepted.

So, it seems, is lying. As many as 25 percent of people admit they lie online (um, it's higher), citing security as the primary reason (um, it's not), and that doesn't account for the growing number of social network accounts that are partly or completely fabricated.

The phenomenon has grown up enough that it carries a better moniker than when Mackey or Chapel stole the show. Some people refer to fictitious and semi-fictitious accounts as catfish, named after the film-turned-television series. The series premiered on MTV in November 2012. It happens all the time.

The consequence of catfish in communication. 

Catfish are the bane of big data, enough so that some social networks are starting to do the unthinkable while ignoring the more obvious breaches like the one recently shared by Amy Vernon. In creating what is assumed to be a fictional account, someone hijacked Vernon's photos and started using them as his or her own under the name 'Melissa Dugan.'

And much like the new television series, Vernon's recent story sheds some light on the impact of catfish. There are personal and professional consequences. Fortunately, she is reasonably able to cope with it so far. But one can only imagine how long (if ever) Manti Te'o will need to fully reconcile the impact of having an online girlfriend — who died and was later resurrected — who was fabricated.

Much like the documentary Catfish, some people go so far as building an entire network of fabricated profiles to support their primary fabricated account, often grabbing up other people's pictures to do it. In the documentary, for example, an entire network of fake friends validated the fictitious account.

It's one step further than what married people who want an affair do on dating sites. Instead of making up one persona, catfish make up entire communities. What they do isn't limited to individual events.

Beyond individual masquerades and into public opinion. 

While some social media experts are quick to think about how fake accounts game popularity, some catfish are specifically set up to skew public opinion. Sometimes these efforts are harmless (such as casting a few extra votes for a favorite band on a survey). But others might not be harmless, given they are used to literally mask agendas by "washing" content through five or six profiles.

Three years ago, I tracked an unsupported news release that eventually became 'validated' by news. Public opinion catfish operate in much the same way, sharing volatile content across less-volatile social network accounts to create the illusion that whatever news is being shared is credible, sometimes rewritten to appear palatable. Or, in other cases, "washing" away geographical data is sometimes done to affect the perception of public policy (e.g., online politics frequently infuses outside interests).

Organizations are equally susceptible to such campaigns. It's not all that uncommon for some angry consumers to repost singular complaints across dozens of networks and review sites (and sometimes with more than one account) in order to disparage a product or service for whatever reason (justly or unjustly). There have even been cases where black hat competitors have driven up negatives, directly (fake reviews) and indirectly (propping up real negative reviews).

While there is a need to retain anonymity online (much like there is a need to preserve social satire), the rest of it — fraud and identity theft — is the leading unaddressed challenge within digital communication. And the best course of action today, although not foolproof, is to slow down, vet the data, and then vet the data again (even if you recognize the avatar, photo or logo as a trusted source).
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