Sentient Spambots vs. Journalism

As a blog owner, I get a lot of spam. Of course my automatic filters weed out the usual ads for anatomical enlargement, financial offers from alleged Nigerian clergy, and suggestions to earn advanced degrees from diploma mills, but in recent years a new category has cropped up, and it’s getting harder and harder to classify it.

Consider the infographic link spammers. These folks use standard online tools to create some marginally interesting illustration, then promote it to any blogger who covers even tangentially related topics. The infographic includes code that helps direct traffic to another site, helping them increase their search engine rankings. I haven’t posted any of these, partly because I’m not into running other people’s ads for free, and partly because the graphics tend to be gimmicky, often misleading representations of questionable data. All the ones I’ve received have included links to “get your degree online” types of sites, which are themselves just extended advertisements for diploma mills. So as an evolutionary byproduct of their efforts to circumvent ever-more-sophisticated filters, the University of Phoenix’s spambots have finally achieved sentience.

Recently, though, I got a note that’s pushed this trend even further, to the point that it’s right next door to legitimate journalism:

Hello,

I help maintain the site [name similar to Diploma-Mills-R-Us.com], and I am writing to let you know about an article we have created that shares essential information on the 2012-2013 Flu Vaccine. You can view part 1 here: [link, to which I've added a nofollow tag].

As you may already know, it is flu season and as the seasons change, the weather gets colder and many people start feeling under the weather. The article offers guidance and information on how and why you should get the vaccine and the effects it may have on your health.

We’re trying to spread the word about this article, and hopefully spread awareness on this subject as many people today are still not getting their flu vaccine and having to pay the consequence. So, if you find it to be useful and interesting, and think others would too, I’d be thrilled if you would share it with your readers, or anyone else you think could benefit from it.

The linked post rehashes information that’s easy enough to find elsewhere, but it isn’t a simple copy-paste job. The author actually created original content, summarizing an important issue and promoting public health. My only real objection to it is that the sponsoring site exists solely to sell dubious training programs for healthcare practitioners.

I can’t get on too high a horse about that, though. Most of the publications my colleagues and I write for make a significant amount of their money from advertising, and for many of them (“controlled circulation” trade magazines, virtually all news web sites) it’s the only revenue source. All of my clients are diligent about maintaining a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments, so the former never directly influences the latter. Reduced to its essence, journalism’s business model is to draw readers to original, independent, useful content, and pay for it by showing them some ads at the same time. The main distinction I see is that at “legitimate” news outlets the content is viewed as the primary product, and the ads as a sort of necessary evil. For sites like the one above, the ads are the main point, and the original content is just eyeball bait. It’s largely a question of intent.

In practical terms, the problem with the latter model is that there are certain types of stories that, while highly relevant to the target audience, could never be permitted to appear there. For example, I wouldn’t expect an unbiased investigative report on the business practices of online degree programs from a site whose existence depends on them. Similar conflicts can arise at traditional news publishers of course, but keeping a diverse stable of advertisers mitigates them, and a business philosophy that values content for its own sake tends to discourage serious abuses.

While I don’t expect the spammers to make the final step in this journey and turn themselves into legitimate journalists, I can’t help wondering whether we’re living in a version of this xkcd comic.