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  • Last modified 23 days ago (Nov. 5, 2020)

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Untangling a web of deceit

Now that the election is over and the choice of who leads us has been turned over by media and voters to lawyers and judges, it’s time to look at all the other lies, deceptions, and hidden motivations we’ve been seeing on TV and in social media.

Take, for example, a series of recent ads by a prominent airline promising to eliminate all — with emphasis on the “all” — change fees on tickets. Only if you read or listen to the tiny, softly spoken disclaimer do you learn that “all” doesn’t include most common economy fares.

Or there’s the company touting a miracle cure for the heartbreak of psoriasis, which you learn if you read tiny type, fleetingly displayed, works for less than half of the patients who receive it.

Then there’s the vitamin concoction that loudly announces that it’s important in protecting you from loss of vision because of macular degeneration, then quietly adds via a barely readable footnote that the product is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease — which, one might think, would include a disease like macular degeneration.

Whether the White House and Congress have been shaded red or blue on some well-coiffed anchorman’s graphics, the safety we used to enjoy when government protected its citizens from deceptive advertising and business practices has exited our daily life faster than a liberal at an old Republican tea party.

Claims that used to be squashed on our airways aren’t the only ways huge businesses deceive us, of course.

For many decades now, readers, listeners, and viewers have become accustomed to a trade-off that lets them get news and entertainment in exchange for subjecting themselves to occasional ads and commercials.

Although the lines occasionally get blurred with such things as sponsored content and product placement in what otherwise seems to be commercial-free news and entertainment, it’s clear to most people what the trade-off is.

Such clarity has been completely abandoned in most cell phone apps, smart speakers, and social media. Users no longer surrender a brief moment of their attention to read, hear, or see what they want. They surrender key personal information that can be used to build frighteningly intrusive profiles of them, which then are sold to the highest bidder wanting to use this information to make money off of them.

But even that isn’t the most insidious way that big tech companies profit without you knowing it. When it’s not obvious where the money to pay for some supposedly free service is coming from, chances are it’s from some mechanism that wouldn’t look very inviting if exposed to the light of day.

Take, for example, how various social media encourage businesses to spend lots of effort creating “free” pages for their customers. True, these pages do encourage brand loyalty. But that’s not why the social media giants encourage them.

Suppose you sell widgets and you create a wonderful social media home for your widget company. All your best customers hang out there and hear all your product announcements.

It sounds good until you realize that what you’ve also done is create a marketing list for other companies selling widgets. They can now go to the social media provider that gave you your page for free and buy your entire customer list from them and reach all the potential customers you’ve identified for them with messages about how their widgets are cheaper, better, or more available.

In the real world, no business person expecting to remain such for very long would ever give up a list of his or her best customers to a competitor. But that’s just what most businesses willingly do when they advertise on social media.

Not only are the customers played for fools because they willingly surrender their privacy. The business that goes to all the effort to bring them together simply is delivering them up for a competitor, with the giant firm that owns the social medium profiting without ever really doing anything.

Tech companies used to brag — privately, of course — about how easy it is to profit off others’ work that way. Back when the internet was just beginning, a tech giant threatened to go into the local news business online, prompting thousands of news organizations to create millions of pages of online content.

By its own admission within industry publications, the tech giant had no real intent of ever actually providing news, which it knew was too costly to profitably do. It’s sole goal was to get others to provide it so that it could sell more software allowing that content to be displayed.

The information age has become a perfect post-modern world in which billions of dollars can be made not because of your own hard work but rather by tricking others into doing the work then becoming the middleman who profits off of their labor.

Where else have we seen that? Take a look around, folks. This also pretty much describes the farm economy — which is why independent local news organizations face many of the same challenges as family farmers.

Many farmers and many news organizations have surrendered to the seemingly inevitable. We, like many of our readers, aren’t about to. But we do hope that those who always urge us to shop local will practice what they preach when they shop for ways to promote their businesses and not blindly follow the siren song of the heartless, soulless tech giants who want their business but care not a whit about the community they do business in.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Nov. 5, 2020

 

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