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Cloaked Websites: The Dark Side of Digital Media

News & Features | October 7, 2013

You are writing an essay about Martin Luther King Jr. Naturally, you turn to Google to begin your online research. On the first page of results you follow the link to a website called www.MartinLutherKing.org. The description of the site reads, “The truth about Martin Luther King: includes historical trivia, articles and pictures. A valuable resource for teachers and students alike.”

At first glance—besides the low production value of the website—it seems like just another online tribute to the life and accomplishments of the revered civil rights activist. Subheadings such as “Historical Writings” and “Civil Rights Library” seem promising, so you decide to keep browsing. But by the time you reach some of the smaller links below the major headings—“Black Invention Myths” and “Why the King Holiday Should be Repealed”—the racist theme of the content becomes more apparent.

Deeper into the website’s subpages, the anti-MLK stance and racism are glaring. A downloadable poster intended for students to distribute to their communities refers to MLK as a “communist, woman-beater, plagiarist, subversive, adulterer, and sexual deviant.” Another section of the website, titled “Rap Music,” reads “Black rappers call on Blacks to murder and rape Whites.”

At this point, it should come as no surprise that the website MartinLutherKing.org is run by Stormfront, an American white supremacist organization. Your online research experience has been manipulated by the incognito workings of a cloaked website.

It would be comforting to say that even the most undiscerning reader would realize that the propaganda on MartinLutherKing.org has a clear racist agenda. But the very purpose of a cloaked website is to conceal authorship or feign legitimacy in order to deliberately disguise its specific political agenda, and most cloaked websites actually utilize legitimate sources to support their fictional claims. The creators of cloaked websites will use every tool available—from deceptive graphic user interfaces to carefully chosen domain names—to secretly push their agenda forward.

A 2003 study conducted by North Carolina State University on trust and the internet showed that internet users trust the domain suffix .org significantly more than .com or .net. The study’s author commented that this finding may relate to users’ experience with not for profit organizations with respect to the reliability and accuracy of the information they provide. What’s more, the study found that individuals who use the Internet frequently tend to trust website credibility much more than those who use it only from time to time. This means that for students, most of whom use the Internet for multiple hours a day, the danger of cloaked websites is seriously heightened.

It’s almost impossible to determine just how many cloaked websites currently exist. Because of their nebulous origins and aims, collecting data and research about them is no easy task. Jessie Daniels, an associate professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, has dedicated her time in recent years to expanding this research, despite the topic’s inherent challenges. In a phone interview, she explained that she has come across about 50 different cloaked sites in her research, but there are likely many more out there of which she’s not aware.

What we do know is that the scope and reach of cloaked websites is significant to the everyday Internet user. They range across the political spectrum—from racist right-wing sites like the MLK example all the way over to the extreme left-wing sites, and everything in between. Daniels described a left-leaning activist group known as the Yes Men, who use the concept of cloaked websites to critique global capitalism. In 2000, the Yes Men created a World Trade Organization imposter site, www.GATT.org, which featured headlines such as “WTO Announces Formalized Slavery Model for Africa” to draw attention to the alarming effects of free-trade policies in Africa and the economic slavery established under the auspices of this system. The group’s stunts were convincing enough to get them invited to speak at multiple conferences and high-profile talks on behalf of the WTO, reflecting a serious lack of fact-checking and critical examination of online sources yet again. GATT.org marked the beginning of a series of “identity correction” stunts, in which the Yes Men took corporate and institutional public identities into their own hands. More recent stunts have involved tying Chevron Oil and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the environmental hazards they create in pursuit of financial profit. The fake online Chevron ad campaign created by the Yes Men was so misleading that several business branding sites such as FastCompany.com had to publish follow-up reviews after originally treating the campaign as seriously intended advertising and not as parody.

Just as the Yes Men disguise their political agenda and authorship from the cloaked websites they create, so too do players on the other side of the corporate coin. The Wal-Mart Corporation covertly created the Working Families for Wal-Mart organization in 2006, with the launch of their site www.ForWalMart.com. The site was intended to appear as a grassroots support group responding to anti-Wal-Mart websites such as Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch, which criticized the company for its poor labor practices. The “About Us” section of the website, which has now been removed from the internet, read: “Working Families for Wal-Mart is a group of leaders from a variety of backgrounds and communities all across America, [with a mission to foster] open and honest dialogue with elected officials, opinion makers, and community leaders that conveys the positive contributions of Wal-Mart to working families” (Daniels 2009). What the site failed to mention was that its creators were actually members of a public relations firm called Edelman, hired by Wal-Mart to sway public opinion about its corporate practices. The irony of the site’s self-description is morally disconcerting, but technically violating any laws.

This brings us to the issue of regulation. Should the law permit the creators of cloaked websites to continue manipulating information under false pretenses? In the American context, Jessie Daniels explained, it would be very hard to regulate this kind of activity. “We just don’t have a precedent for it,” she said. Our society’s core values of freedom of speech make censoring or criminalizing certain types of expression—even deceptive expression—unconstitutional and against the American way.

However, there have been moves toward a kind of regulation when it comes to other types of online propaganda. A closely related phenomenon to cloaked websites occurring on review sites like Yelp.com will be facing responsive crackdown measures as of this year. In September, MarketWatch reported that up to 25% of entries on Yelp are false reviews, forged by companies trying to improve their online reputations. The report stated that companies typically paid freelance writers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Eastern Europe between $1 to $10 per fraudulent review. In response, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, announced that thanks to Operation Free Turf, a yearlong undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, he has struck an agreement with 19 different companies to put an end to fraudulent reviews and deceptive business practices.

“I think it’s going to be a kind of game of Whack-a-Mole,” Daniels said responding to New York’s regulations. “You need to stay ahead of these sorts of things by approaching them through legislation or law. Policy and regulation are going to be more effective when they have a business outcome, where there is some kind of money exchange.” The definition of a cloaked website is not unlike these fake reviews, which the Attorney General called “intentional deceit across the Internet”—somebody has an agenda they want to disguise by concealing authorship.

Perhaps more important than governmental measures are the efforts of citizens to increase Internet transparency. While there is no easy way to identify a cloaked website, a critical eye and an understanding of media literacy can go a long way. Take for example the highly sophisticated cloaked website www.TeenBreaks.com, which first appears to be an informational website on reproductive health but is really a pro-life propaganda site. The absence of an “About Us” page should be a first clue for Internet users. This is a red flag for individuals interested in uncovering the hidden agendas of cloaked websites. Forget convincing graphics, “verified” seals of approval, and “real” user feedback; if you can’t find out who made the site and what they want to accomplish with it, chances are you shouldn’t trust it.

But as we discovered with ForWalMart.com, even “About Us” sections can be products of complete forgery. These cases call for even more attention to detail. Cross-referencing Google results is one effective tool. Want to know who runs Americans Against Food Taxes (www.NoFoodTaxes.com)? With a little investigation, it’s not hard to discover that a coalition of major restaurant, food, and beverage companies run this front group. There are a host of resources available to the online community, like www.SourceWatch.com, that make cross-referencing and fact checking suspected cloaked websites possible.

It’s important to realize that although the democratization of digital media may threaten the legitimacy, accuracy, and transparency of public information, it also provides the public with greater access to a variety of information. It offers us the tools to pursue truth and to determine which sources to trust and which to distrust. Citizens—especially political activists—should not only demand transparency from online sources, but also apply it to their own online strategies, too. Daniels powerfully underscored the tragedy of a white supremacist group registering a domain name like MartinLutherKing.org. She says, “that domain name went up in approximately 1995, so really early in the Internet revolution. The fact that the far-right white supremacists were prescient enough to register that domain name so early, to me, says that those of us who want to advance racial equality and social justice need to be just as sophisticated and prescient about our own strategies online.”

Political and corporate deception is by no means a new phenomenon. But characteristics of the digital era make it significantly harder to discern what is fact and what is fiction. Furthermore, the convergence of the Internet’s vast influential reach with powerful political and economic entities renders the potential of advertising and propaganda more impactful than ever before. Let us open our eyes to the risks that this unchecked power can mean for society’s democratic values. We face a new epistemological challenge as a result of “truthiness” taking place of truth on the web today in the form of marketing-ploys and Internet spoofs. The half-truths and manipulated facts of the digital era call for more refined standards of critical thinking and rationality of the modern web user. What is needed, Daniels says, is an “alternative epistemology, which calls on lived experience, ethics and reason as interconnected, essential components in assessing knowledge claims.”

Our pursuit of truth can even be taken a step farther: why not take the opportunities of the Internet into our own hands? As an answer to deceptive cloaked websites and cyber-racism, we can use online strategies to advance causes of social justice through grassroots blogging campaigns and social media. Let us establish a precedent for transparency, speak to the online community and openly say, “Here we are and this is what we stand for”.