So many shower curtains! But with the endless choice comes the risk of being fooled.
By Shira Ovide
- Dec. 15, 2020
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In our pandemic-altered 2020, it’s felt essential for many of us to be able to buy almost anything from home. One thousand varieties of shower curtains at our fingertips!
But being a truly informed online shopper now requires us to have an advanced degree in internet scams and the business of how products are marketed, sold and transported around the world.
This is a pattern with online news, entertainment, merchandise and more. Seemingly endless choice is amazing, but it has also introduced more confusion and the risk of being fooled.
I still think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but I’m also tired from thinking so hard about buying a pressure cooker or whether that photo from a political protest is real or forged.
My exhaustion reached a peak in the last few weeks. I wrote last month about bogus reviews on Amazon, and now I find myself eyeballing every online review for clues that it was bought off. I’ve always been skeptical, but now I don’t trust anything.
- Dig deeper into the moment.
Then this weekend, I listened to this podcast about the Chinese mystery seeds. Remember all those news articles months ago about Americans who received plant seeds they didn’t order that arrived from China or other foreign countries?
It turns out that it was probably not a nefarious plot but rather the result of a surge in online ordering, paranoia about China and a common internet scam known as “brushing.”
Brushing essentially involves a seller fabricating online orders to make a product appear more popular, and then trying to avoid detection by shipping a cheap and low-weight product, such as plant seeds, to a real person. Here is a more detailed explanation.
Not long ago I also had to explain to a family member why an item he bought on Amazon arrived on his doorstep in a Walmart shipping box. Short answer: The merchant on Amazon probably took the order, bought the same item for less on Walmart’s website, had it shipped directly to my relative, and pocketed the price difference as profit. This is another common e-commerce moneymaking tactic in the sea of complicated ways to game the system.
Online shopping is a massive industry, complete with consulting companies that advise on fake reviews, software sold for people to spot and take advantage of price differences and towns filled with warehouses to repackage online orders. This is how shopping works now.
You can, of course, just click buy and be blissfully unaware of any of this. That’s fine! I know I’m that annoying person who screams “THAT’S A TRICK” when you’re just trying to order dish soap.
But also know that there’s a risk we might be persuaded by bogus online reviews into buying a bad product, or we might believe we’re buying something from Amazon and instead purchase a dangerous toy from a no-name seller. Or maybe we freak out about seeds arriving at home out of seemingly nowhere.
The risk of going astray isn’t confined to shopping. Behind the Facebook post at the top of my feed, the series that Netflix recommends and the headphones that appear in Amazon’s one-click ordering are often elaborate, financially motivated games to influence what we do.
This system of internet persuasion is not inherently bad, but it is helpful to understand how it works. It’s just that doing so is utterly exhausting.
Remember: Elected officials make laws
It is the job of our elected officials to tell companies what they should or shouldn’t do.
We know that banks help draft financial regulations and automakers advise on car safety rules, but somewhere in there lawmakers must make laws.
Remember that. My colleague David McCabe wrote that Google, Facebook, Twitter and some other companies suddenly seem open to tweaking a bedrock law of the internet that limits companies’ legal exposure for the material that people post on their sites.
This rule, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, made possible YouTube, Amazon’s sea of merchants and the comments sections of The New York Times, but both Republicans and Democrats say the law must change — although they’re divided on why and how.
David wrote that the new posture of internet companies “could change the dynamics of an increasingly heated debate over how to handle hate speech, extremist content and child pornography online.”
But again, lawmakers must decide on new rules. Changing Section 230 requires elected officials to thoughtfully balance freedom of online expression with our safety. And here I get discouraged.
Reading David’s article I had a flashback to 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg — in response to Facebook’s gazillionth scandal — said that government regulation might be needed to disclose who is behind paid online political messages, similar to the rules for TV advertising. This was after Facebook for years sought to be excluded from the political ad disclosure rules that apply to conventional media.
Members of Congress had pending bills to mandate more transparency for online ads. And then … nothing. The rules didn’t pass, at least not yet. (To be fair, online companies fought against some of the proposed internet political ad restrictions.)
Facebook on its own started an online hub that discloses who pays for ads about political and hot-button social issues. Facebook’s ad transparency efforts are seriously flawed, but they’re still more helpful than the nothing from America’s elected officials.
So yes, it’s notable when major internet companies say they’re open to revised regulation. But the next step — government rule makers deciding on thoughtful rules and actually making them — is the hard part.
(Meanwhile in Europe, in an effort to regulate the tech industry there, lawmakers wrote laws.)
Before we go …
- The U.S. government hack was bigger than we thought: Software used by many companies and government agencies to monitor their computer networks was found to have been compromised by Russian hackers, my colleagues reported. That appeared to be the origin of a large and sophisticated cyberattack that struck parts of the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.
- Dying of “overwork”: More than a dozen package-delivery couriers have died in South Korea this year, some after complaining of unbearable work loads, my colleague Choe Sang-Hun wrote. The revelations have made South Koreans reflect on worker protections in the country and the expectations for online orders to arrive with “bullet speed.”
- Can technology help people remember us? A Wall Street Journal video documentary discusses technologies that can preserve people’s voices, photos and memories for our loved ones after we die. I always thought technologies like chatbots of dead people were creepy, but this video made me reconsider.
Hugs to this
I love it when pets attack whatever is happening on a TV screen. Here is a cat who is really into a “Star Wars” scene. Pets are so weird.
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Shira Ovide writes the On Tech newsletter, a guide to how technology is reshaping our lives and world. @ShiraOvide