FUD and Fabrications – The Age of Clickbait Mass Media

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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

-George Orwell

Google defines FUD as: “Fear, uncertainty and doubt, usually evoked intentionally in order to put a competitor at a disadvantage.”

XRP is no stranger to FUD, both on social media and in tech journalism. The Forbes article titled “Is Ripple a Scam?” is an excellent example of this. The author alleges, amongst other things, that Ripple is a pump and dump scheme. This is a peculiar thing to suggest considering that Ripple only used 300 million of the 3 billion XRP released to them from their cryptographically secure escrow during the first quarter of 2018. The massive stock of XRP the author mentions (55 billion) is locked away in escrow on a timed-release schedule of a billion a month. There is currently no way for Ripple to dump the total mass of its XRP holdings onto the market. Q1 2018 was the time-frame that XRP had reached its all-time high. Ripple indicates that their XRP sales during that quarter were only 0.095% ($167.7 million) of global XRP trades. They ostensibly could have sold far more than they did.

If Ripple were running a pump and dump scheme, it would make no sense to sell the XRP they had in such a limited fashion. And if they intended to dump their XRP, why did they not dump the entire 3 billion XRP released from escrow in Q1 2018 when XRP was at its all-time high? Instead, they placed 2.7 billion XRP back into escrow. It’s possible Ripple only wants the consistent cash-flow that sales of the digital asset guarantee them without believing in the project’s utility, but they have other sources of revenue. Their xCurrent software seems widely adopted by the financial sector, and xCurrent requires institutions to pay an initial setup fee (10 million for a bank that processes 12 billion in international transactions). I find it equally likely that they believe in their technology. The restraint they’ve shown in unloading XRP and in using the cryptocurrency released to them from escrow is an indication of this. If Ripple thought they had a useless digital asset, it seems reasonable to assume they’d be in more of a hurry to get rid of it.

Clickbait Journalism

Wired featured an article in August titled, Mysterious iOS Attack Changes Everything We Know about iPhone Hacking. In the first paragraph of the article, the author writes, “Hacking the iPhone has long been considered a rarified endeavor, undertaken by sophisticated nation-states against only their most high-value targets. But a discovery by a group of Google researchers has turned that notion on its head: For two years, someone has been exploiting a rich collection of iPhone vulnerabilities with anything but restraint or careful targeting. And they’ve indiscriminately hacked thousands of iPhones just by getting them to visit a website.”

This news is rather alarming. Apple’s iOS is generally regarded as expensive and difficult to exploit. The Apple app store also has a more thorough vetting process than the Google play store, the latter of which has a far bigger problem with malware than Apple does. The author seems right. This does turn everything we know about iPhone hacking onto its head. Or does it?

In the very same article, the author states:

Wait a minute. The title, the first paragraph, and the subheading of the article made it seem like someone was indiscriminately targeting all demographics of iPhone users. And now the author is contradicting that statement and suggesting that it was a government-sponsored attack specifically targeting a group that self-selects.

Is it outright clickbait or FUD? Maybe a little bit of both. According to this Forbes article, Microsoft, Google, and Apple were all targeted. The article indicates, “Google hadn’t provided comment at the time of publication. It’s unclear if Google knew or disclosed that the sites were also targeting other operating systems. One source familiar with the hacks claimed Google had only seen iOS exploits being served from the sites.”

I suppose it’s possible Google only saw iOS exploits being served from the site that targeted the Uyghur community, but it seems odd that the only exploits they saw and reported were those targeting their major mobile competitor.

Why not a different headline? Perhaps something like “Dissident Group Targeted by State-Sponsored iOS Exploit.” It’s not quite as flashy, but it gets the point across. It could be that the publication simply wants to attract your click. They want the attention such a headline would bring to them. In the short term, there’s no downside to creating a misleading and attention-grabbing title. It drives users to their site and boosts revenue. The headline makes people think, “Wait, did I visit that site? Could I have been hacked?”

Apple also released a statement alleging that Google had created a false impression of “mass exploitation” and “stoking fear among all iPhone users that their devices had been compromised.”

Apple has opted to take a firm stance on user privacy, and it took a dig at Google with a billboard that said, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” Business Insider indicates this billboard was placed in one of Google’s “smart cities.”

It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a response targeting Apple’s positive image with regards to security and privacy. This article recently revealed Apple had been paying contractors to listen to recordings of Siri requests, which makes Apple look hypocritical considering the content of that billboard. Caught as it was, with its hand in the cookie jar, Apple was forced to change their policy with regards to Siri recordings.

The Tiny Chip Charade

The Bloomberg article, The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies is an even more sordid example of clickbait journalism. The article features an animated image of a computer chip that is gradually stripped away of its circuits, capacitors, and transistors until it comes to rest on a bare green board with a circle drawn around a minuscule dot near the corner of the board – the tiny chip the size of a “grain of rice” that Bloomberg says was placed into the board to siphon data away from U.S. tech companies.

Horrifying. Except, the story might have been a complete fabrication: “A report earlier this month from Bloomberg Businessweek alleging 17 unnamed sources had confirmed Chinese spies infiltrated the supply chain of microchip manufacturer Super Micro, installing tiny espionage chips that allowed them to wiretap systems belonging to almost 30 U.S. companies, has earned denials from Homeland Security, Apple, and Amazon. Now executives from Super Micro and Amazon are following Apple CEO Tim Cook’s lead and publicly demanding a retraction of the story, the Verge reported Monday.”

This article by Eirk Wemple in the Washington Post says, “Several other news outlets attempted to replicate Bloomberg’s reporting about the alleged Chinese hardware attack. Thus far, they have failed to do so…” The website hackaday states that Super Micro stock took a bit of dive after the Bloomberg article was released. These kinds of strange fabrications or poorly researched articles don’t exist in a vacuum. They have very real financial implications, and as hackaday argues, the downsides for a publication like Bloomberg are almost nothing other than a hit to their reputation. The article drove a lot of clicks, which most likely made the publication money. Was it completely made up? Or did the authors simply not properly vet their sources? Who knows. I was unable to find a retraction by Bloomberg.

At the very least, the journalists of both of the above articles should have had a more thorough look at the information provided to them by their sources. Why would a nation-state actor targeting a large dissident group attack only iPhones? Is there financial incentive for Google to report only one side? Could a rival to Super Micro be providing bad information to make their competitor look bad? Or is the source just unreliable and fabricating the story?

Inaccurate clickbait articles and borderline fabrications seem pervasive with tech journalism. There’s a battle of perception going on in our minds as tech giants and others vie for the ability to “put the pieces back together in a manner of their own choosing.” It’s fascinating to see the battle play out in the media as they feint and parry and try to attack a competitor’s perceived advantages relative to their own products. The power to control perception drives sales, clicks, and revenue, but this kind of shadowboxing has a dark side. It makes it hard for the layman to figure out what’s going on, and people are increasingly tuning out mass media publications for far less credible alternatives. If you purport to be a merchant of truth, people will not suffer your lies. This has far-reaching implications beyond the kind of laptop, phone, or cryptocurrency one has an affinity for. If people can no longer trust formerly reliable publications, something else will jump in to fill that gap. And it may not be something with our best interests at heart.

Photo credit: Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

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