Mid-Article Clickbait Probably

An image of a roll of AstroTurf.

So begins the long battle to persuade Godsdamned Google Godsdamned Chrome to understand that while I certainly want to block pain-in-the-ass cookies, I would like to allow the cookies that let me, say, sign in to my own website.

But, Godsdamned Google being Godsdamned Google, it’s a case of finding all the devious little hidden switches and settings you have to tweak in order to overcome its petulant sulky attitude: “Well, if you don’t want tasty advertising tracking cookies, I just won’t let you have any so ner.”

Anyway still, not being able to log in means I get to see my site as the reader would see it – ads and all. So I think it’s worthwhile offering another apology for the fact that I’m too cheap to take up a paid subscription to WordPress. Sorry about that. I hope you can tolerate the occasional annoying banner ad or mid-article clickbait probably about feet.

General advice: don’t click on any ads on my site. They’re likely to be anything from scammy garbage all the way up to the undermining of democracy.

Hang on, woah… What? That’s a bit strong, isn’t it?

Not at all. Just like Facebook encourages the propagation of political disinformation, such as the brazen falsehoods of Vote Leave during the EU referendum campaign, so too do a lot of the cross-site advertising networks, such as the one WordPress use.

A good example this morning, look at this manipulative nonsense here:

An image of a banner advert served on a website. The advert is presented as a political poll: "Do you think that Johnson is right to support Cummings?" There are three options: Yes, No, and Don't Care. The Yes option is shown with a majority result and a green bar indicating it as the favoured choice.

A little outdated in the news cycle, perhaps, but no less telling. I’ve seen it because I often engage with political posts and sites – but it serves as an example of the sort of shady crap these ad networks push. If you can’t see the image it’s a banner ad presenting itself as a political poll: “Do you think that Johnson is right to support Cummings?”

Cummings is an unelected, secretive ‘special advisor’ to the UK Prime Minister.

An image of UK prime minister Boris Johnson standing with secretive 'special advisor' Dominic Cummings. The pair are photographed through an iron fence, giving the pleasing impression of prison bars.
Cummings (far right) seen here with UK prime minister somehow Boris Johnson

He’s a man with a very shady past including links to 55 Tufton Street, home to a network of hard-right ‘think thanks’, and several years spent in Russia and not publicly accounted for. Cummings now wields an extraordinary amount of influence over British government policy, to the point that he’s shortly going to undertaking a structural review of the UK’s defence policy including visits to classified sites. It’s unclear what if any security clearance Cummings holds. So that’s fine, apparently.

The ad asks the reader to “give their opinion” with three radio buttons: Yes, No, and I Don’t Care.

Two points should be noted: first, this ‘poll’ is functionally a link. Whatever choice you click on, it’ll take you to who-knows-what site, or even download and execute who-knows-what code on your computer (the latter is admittedly unlikely, but it does happen and it’s always a risk when clicking on any link on any site – especially adverts).

Second, and most glaringly, unlike a legitimate poll, which will conceal the response numbers until you’ve clicked your own answer to avoid unduly influencing you, this one’s overtly trying to influence you: it shows a majority answer for ‘Yes’, and ‘Yes’ has green bar: green, to show you that this is the ‘safe’ response you should choose. It’s also the answer at the top.

This is a (very) crude example of what’s called ‘astroturfing’ – that is, a form of propaganda designed to give the appearance of a grassroots movement (AstroTurf being fake grass). The idea is that you’ll look at this supposed poll and think, “Oh, well, the majority of people obviously support Cummings, so I should too.”

A roll of AstroTurf.

And even if you’re like me, and would like to see Cummings (and Johnson) removed from power and subjected to intensive investigation for corruption and collusion with an adversary state, the ad’s secondary line of attack is to try to encourage you to click on the ‘No’ option to try to balance out the numbers – but of course, the numbers aren’t real: they just want you to click.

Don’t laugh: it works extraordinarily well on a population. It’s the same tactic that uses massive numbers of automated ‘bots’ to push a political message on Twitter – again used extensively by Vote Leave in 2016 and by right-wing and far-right organisations before and since.

Anyway my advice would be NEVER click on an ad served to you by a website. If you’re interested in a product or service, search for it yourself and click through to the site from your search results. Never, ever trust a served advert to take you to a safe site. In fact, never trust an advert – it’s good life advice in general. Online, always use an ad blocker if you can – personally I recommend uBlock Origin, available as an extension on all the big browsers. This one lets you selectively block cross-site requests from sites you visit, though it has a default mode you can use if you’re not up for tweaking.

Sacred cheese, though, this turned out to be a massive, heavy post. Thanks for reading this enormous screed. Also, I’ve reported the below to WordPress as an inappropriate advert, and look forward to them doing sod all about it as always.

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