Would you trust an online ad in return for £100?

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Back in 1979 Kit Williams, boggle-eyed children’s author and creator of intricate things, crafted a hare-shaped pendant from 18-carat gold and jewels and buried it in the dead of night at a spot near Ampthill, Bedfordshire, UK. Soon afterwards he released his latest children’s picture book, Masquerade, which through tortuously complex clues alluded to where the priceless amulet was buried. It was intended not so much to sell copies of the book but to make readers intimately study and appreciate his work, as well as a gentle way of stimulating those interested in riddles and art, and Kit anticipated a small flurry of interest.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kit_Williams.jpg

The nation went berserk. Two million copies of Masquerade were snapped up and pored over whilst Kit, a quiet and tremendously shy man, was hounded for more information until moving to the woods to become a recluse. Drunk half on the childish excitement of a treasure hunt and half on pure greed people gave up decoding the clues and started digging anywhere; just because of its name ‘Haresfield Beacon’ in Gloucestershire was hacked to bits by shovel tips forcing Kit to emerge from hiding and publicly announce it wasn’t there, and to suggest perhaps studying the cryptograms as intended. For over two years this mayhem continued before the prize was eventually found.

I can vividly recall hearing of this idea and being fascinated at the ability to whip up such mass chaos. Similarly for all its bad jokes and hammy acting I do enjoy the 2001 film Rat Race, in which an eccentric casino owner (John Cleese) gives six randomly-selected people keys to a storage locker 563 miles away in which sits $2 million, first one there gets to keep it all – go. It’s a social experiment I’ve always wanted to try conducting myself.

However, we’re 40 years on from a world where Kit could reach society via twee printed illustrations of rabbits and cats and prancing farmhands, anything similar these days would have to be carried out online, and that’s a problem. From being constantly yelled at by clickbait adverts that only 1% get this quiz right(!) and that doctors can’t explain this one trick which beats the signs of ageing(!!), to clicking on all the traffic lights in a Captcha image only to reach a website still rife with bots and virus links, the levels of trust in what we interact with online couldn’t be much lower.

We have actually passed a stage now dubbed ‘The Inversion’, meaning less than 50% of web traffic today is real content and over half now comprises of bots pretending to be human, preying on vulnerability by acting as affluent Nigerian princes or lonely housewives in the local area to harvest your delicious data. Ironically we’re at a point now where fake images, ads and opportunities are so prevalent that they’re viewed as real, whilst anything real is often believed to be fake.

I decided to test this by trying to arrange a scaled-down Rat Race­-style scramble of my own. My plan was to hide £100 of my own money in a nearby public park in my home town of Bournemouth, then select six random listings from the ‘Stuff for Sale’ page of Gumtree, Southampton, putting about 35 miles or so between those whom I contacted and where the prize was hidden. I would message these six strangers the location of the money simultaneously and then delight as I pictured them knocking their coffees over in the scrabble for car keys, gripped by the same intrinsic desire for money, and victory, that overcame the nation when Kit buried his blinged-out bunny.

It would be a genuine contest with real money and the first to arrive would actually get to keep it. I am in no way a wealthy man so not really in a state of financial well-being to waft £100 around like I don’t need it, but I justified it to myself by imagining that same amount of money to only be a nice meal out for two, or a couple of new video games, or a night of heavy drinking, and hosting a race of humans across the South of England for my own amusement sounded like a better way of spending it.

Having bought a cheap safe online all I needed now were my players. I accrued the mobile numbers of six Gumtree sellers, shifting banal items such as a TV stand, a used mattress and an ornate mirror, and sent them each a preliminary message to see how many were willing to compete.

With those six identical texts sent I could feel dubiety and mistrust prickling in my direction during the heavy silence that followed. I had found their details online and was now messaging with a seemingly fantastical offer, just like the bots that bombard us, taunting that we “won’t believe what happened next! Click here!” or soberly claiming our Amazons and PayPals have been hacked and we need to send over our details, ready to pounce with malware or massive illicit direct debit payments. The difference was that my proposition was 100% real, but post-Inversion would my genuine offer be seen as fake just like the fake are now trusted as real? This would be the acid test.

Eventually I received a reply, from the person who was selling a mirror. It wasn’t what I had hoped for.

Naturally I was disappointed to receive this, and a little concerned I’d been reported to not one but “2 authorities for investigation”, but to be honest unsurprised. Four of the players didn’t respond whatsoever, clearly condemning me as the sort of spambot that claims it can source aphrodisiacs and free Netflix, but one blessed gentlemen who was selling a padded bag for DJ equipment replied: “Give the money to someone who needs it not me”, which made me feel just a fraction better about our species.

So scepticism stopped anyone claiming their 100 tax-free British pounds and I got to keep it all. Of course I understand their suspicions, I’d likely have deleted that message too were I them, but it’s made the Internet seem all the more insidious to me. We’re sliding into a status whereabouts the vast majority of online content is fake, maliciously fake at that, and worse still we continue to blindly consume it every day, while any glimmers of real human interaction are snuffed out through paranoia. Bots have become so skilled at masquerade that we can no longer tell the organic from the artificial, and aren’t even prepared to take someone’s word that they’re real any longer, not even for £100 in cash.