COMMENT:

As Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern's photograph appears in a lot of places - including a recent promoted Facebook post that looked like a news story and pointed readers to a "new investment plan for Kiwis".

If they clicked through, online users were forwarded to a faux news article claiming that New Zealand Treasury had invested $250 million in a bitcoin start-up and that New Zealanders stood to make massive profits by doing the same.

Lending extra credibility to the website was a CNN logo and the byline and twitter handle of Seth Fiegerman, a respected US-based tech reporter.

Advertisement
The fake news site featured the branding of CNN and the byline of a respected tech writer. Photo/Online.
The fake news site featured the branding of CNN and the byline of a respected tech writer. Photo/Online.

The entire thing – from the initial Facebook post, to the fake news site, to Fiegerman's byline – is an elaborate ruse leading users to a bitcoin spam site, promising outrageous returns from investing in the highly speculative cryptocurrency market.

What's most worrying is not the use of Ardern's likeness or the name of a popular journalist, but rather the ease with which spammers are able to target Facebook users with highly relevant and potentially harmful information.

The thing is, not everyone across the nation would have seen that ad. I suspect the only reason it squeezed into my newsfeed is that I tend to keep an eye on the bitcoin price as part of my job. That search history was then equated to an interest in the topic and used to target me.

It's important to remember, says Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker, that the ad targeting tools of Facebook and other social media platforms are open to both legitimate businesses and to spammers.

Pretty much anyone with a credit card could set up a faux business and start targeting users with creepily specific details.

Another recent personal example came in the shape of a series of Facebook ads for premium surfboards, selling at a tenth of their usual cost. Once again, the ads were perfectly attuned to my interests and the connected online retail store did a great impersonation of any number of legitimate online surf stores – glitches, unresponsiveness and poorly cropped images only added to the authenticity in this case.

"The thing with online advertising is that there are so many great legitimate deals that it can be difficult to spot those that are fake," says Cocker.

"The rule of 'if it's too good to be true' isn't as easy to apply these days."

Facebook does a reasonably good job of removing scam ads, getting rid of 837 million pieces of spam and disabling 583 million fake accounts from January to March this year.

But it's a never-ending battle, which at best can look like an elaborate game of whack-a-mole. As soon as Facebook eliminates one offender, another pops up in its place – as indicated by the surfboard ads.

Over the course of a weekend, I was offered variations on the initial surfboard ads via a number of online stores, differing only in name and almost inseparable in their aesthetics.

One of a number of iterations of cheap surfboards ads fed served through Facebook. Photo/Facebook.
One of a number of iterations of cheap surfboards ads fed served through Facebook. Photo/Facebook.

"The cost of putting up an online business is low," says Cocker, explaining scammers can quickly create a new fake store to replace one that was previously banned.

It's a problem that even the New Zealand Government is battling to contend with.

"When we are advised of, or discover, examples of fake news that fraudulently use images of the Prime Minister, we immediately inform Facebook, who are usually pretty good at taking them down," the Prime Minister's press secretary Julie Jacobson told the Herald.

"We did let them know about the latest ones, that you have flagged. However, we aren't able to manually or digitally monitor the increasing volume of fake news that fraudulently uses images of the Prime Minister.

"Unfortunately this seems to be happening more regularly and is difficult to prevent."

All this is part of the reason why Facebook is investing heavily in artificial intelligence that can quickly flag offending content and remove it before it reaches too broad an audience.

Alongside these steps, Facebook has also increased its team of content reviewers to ensure more human eyes are closely watching what gets served through the interface. However, given the hundreds of millions of posts churned out on the channel, it's questionable how effective these eyeballs will be in keeping track of all the information published daily.

The most annoying ads

On the topic of highly personalised targeted ads, it's also worth questioning whether it's really in the best interests of legitimate brands to use these tools too often.

Recent research from Accenture found that 35 per cent of consumers find it creepy when served an ad on a social site for something they had searched for on a brand website.

The only categories of targeting viewed as creepier were receiving a text (41 per cent) or mobile notification (40 per cent) from a brand retailer when walking past a store.

The Accenture paper says that although there is always room to personalise certain experiences, many brands are choosing the wrong tactics.

A more effective engagement tactic, according to the research, was the example of a brand sending a personalised apology to a customer who had a poor in-store experience.

Do we need a new digital media minister?

When former Broadcasting and Digital Media Minister Clare Curran was removed from Cabinet, her portfolio was passed on to Kris Faafoi.

This added to a workload that already included the challenging civil defence and commerce and consumer affairs portfolios – which poses the question of whether Faafoi has enough time to focus on broadcasting or the increasingly important digital media aspects of his duties.

MP Kris Faafoi is a busy man at the moment. Photo/File.
MP Kris Faafoi is a busy man at the moment. Photo/File.

Asked whether there were plans to announce a new minister to take over Curran's previous portfolio, Jacobson kept her cards close to her chest, saying only that as a former journalist and experienced MP, Faafoi "is well-placed and enthusiastic about the broadcasting and digital media portfolio".

No one is questioning Faafoi's commitment or skill level, but even the most talented among us has a limit in terms of how much they can achieve in a working day.