Sitting here on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Perpignan, during the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been reminded about some thoughts I’d been having about Conspiracy Capitalism. All across social media I’m seeing conspiracy theories joining hands – 5G is now a direct cause of the Coronavirus, the mandated isolation is a cover for New World Order Phase II, every pandemic exercise over the last few years has been a dry run for government control and the hospitals are all either empty, full of crisis actors or mannequins. The Climate Hoax seems to have been side-lined…for now.
I’d been thinking about all of these webpages that get shared, and their connections to businesses who also seem to sell products that are tenuously related to the misinformation contained on these pages. An example is page that I saw being shared (just before I finally quit Facebook) from the site Natural News with the information that even “NASA admits that climate change occurs because of changes in Earth’s solar orbit, and NOT because of SUVs and fossil fuels”. Prime fodder for those that believe that humans have no influence on climate change and for those who see it all as a hoax. Natural News also happens to promote a variety of products ranging from organic popcorn, homeopathic silver remedies, through to survival gear, pandemic protection kits and Geiger/EMF meters. Via armed self-defence videos, it also reroutes people to a mirror store selling the same products. A honeypot for the concerned. This is a webmaster who knows their public and how to attract them.
For now, I don’t want to single out Natural News, or anyone else, as the sole offender in using conspiracies and pseudoscience as a strategy to draw people to their products – we’ve already seen the likes of Alex Jones saying that his toothpaste would cure the corona virus and a popular American pastor selling colloidal silver solutions for the same purpose. First, I would like to talk about my own experiences with online SEO tactics, Multi-Level Marketing and perhaps tell a story about some ideas I have about Conspiracy Capitalism and how it came about.
Back in 2009, an old acquaintance contacted me regarding some business ideas he had. He wanted some help figuring out some software that might give him the edge in a crowded market. Dave – as we’ll call him – was barking up the right tree. I’d been busily figuring out software and hardware for some years – as a computer tech, sound engineer and, more recently, as an artist and technician. Luckily for me, I was not as broke as when we last met and I could afford to define my own terms.
I first crossed paths with Dave in Dutch squats during the mid-90’s. He was a wheeler and a dealer who dressed normally and drove a BMW. A contrast to the techno-crusty dress code and choice of transport. A supplier to the culture of the time. He had continued in a similar role for many years, served time in a foreign jail and come out with a lot more ideas for making a quick buck.
I had skipped on many of these ideas, but eventually he had found an area that was apparently legal, interesting and a potentially useful skill – SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). Inevitably, it all got murky.
For a few weeks, I looked into the current state of SEO and played with some software that Dave sent.
In the days when I had websites that earned me money, I promoted them through forums, link swapping and generally making sure that they contained plenty of text and keywords that was updated regularly. Still, I mostly relied on word-of-mouth for my businesses – computer repairs and a recording studio. As the 2000s rolled on, I could see SEO becoming more prominent. The internet was getting crowded, the corner-stores were fading and shopping malls were being built. The Social Media revolution was coming and the fight to be noticed was getting heavily-financed and mean. Spam was always a good signifier of how things were going, and I was seeing some interesting things – almost-intelligible emails hawking miracle cures, forums and comments being overwhelmed by advertising bots, malware that rerouted websites to high pressure sales pitches.
The software I was looking at was the source of some of this noise – forum spammers, blog generators, article spinners, etc. Fascinated, I agreed to look at it, on the condition that it would only be run within my own sandbox and against my own servers. After which, I would write Dave a manual and he could do what he wanted with the knowledge. I felt a little dirty, but I felt a little clean.
I digress – let’s talk about some of the people I met.
After a few weeks lurking on the support forums, I noticed that a couple of the more active members were also offering online master classes on best practices with the software. Dave suggested that I do a one-week webinar series and I agreed, if he paid. €250 for 5 classes over a week, with email support. Each class would run for an hour and have between 5 and 10 attendees. Although the teacher – who shall be called Travis – was based in the US, these classes were scheduled for a suitable Western European time. Others were scheduled for American, Middle-Eastern and Asian time zones. Off the bat, I was already seeing the execution of a lucrative business model.
The classes started off in a very remedial way – introductions and hopes, but I was happy to run with it. I could see from the other five attendees that they were new to the whole internet and e-commerce game. Mostly – almost entirely – 30/40-somethings looking for ways to get out of the recession rat race and claim some of that sweet internet gold they’d been hearing about. Multi-Level Marketeers who had boxes of stuff under their beds and wanted to pass their bad decisions onwards. Another was a beginner website designer who wanted to add SEO to his skillset. There was a lot of excitement that Travis was happy to stoke. I kept my mouth shut and listened, for the moment.
Travis projected the image of a man who had already cracked it. He was making money hand-over-fist, doing the minimum of work, had a beautiful wife, a big house and a double garage full of performance cars. He just wanted to pass his knowledge on and let some other people share in the opportunities available. If we followed his method, there was no reason any of us couldn’t be as successful as Travis – if not, even more successful.
After much talk from Travis about how the internet and search engines worked, tales of life-transforming business successes, Google AdWords and expensive cars, we finally seemed to be moving on to the software and how it should be deployed effectively.
Up to this point, I had been uninterested in this parallel pitch of financial success. All I was interested in was the technical knowledge. I was there to learn about a piece of software and move on – I wasn’t interested in the inferred lifestyle. By this time, the other attendees were getting very excited about the future. I could hear the dollar signs in their speech as they encouraged one another. It was turning into a weird little self-help group. They all had a product to sell, but the product wasn’t important. The selling was important. The money was the target.
Day 3 began with Travis regaling us with a tale of a big financial win for him that very morning, and how little he had had to do to get it. Everyone cheered him on. I asked – a little curtly – about the software.
At this stage, I was starting to strain at the leash.
Travis told me to relax, that we would be getting into it today, but that it was also important to share these success stories, so that we would know what we wanted and to help form goals to aim for. I held up my hands and congratulated him. He talked about the benefits of Vision Boards for a few minutes, before moving on. My red-flag senses were tingling.
The software training began. Travis talked through the interface like a person who had just seen it for the first time. He clicked on every menu and read out the items within with the vaguest of explanations. He was padding out the time. Whenever I asked about any deeper technical details, I was brushed aside with the practiced ease of a grifter who had the crowd on his side. I was learning nothing new and was relieved that my own money wasn’t involved. The others seemed to be fully engrossed, taking copious notes and getting slightly exasperated with my interruptions. If the other attendees were getting something out of this – great – but this wasn’t the place for me. I bided my time and pushed on with getting my main questions answered at least.
From initial impressions of the software, and others like it, I recognised that two prerequisites would need to be resolved to allow it to run completely automatically – after the initial set up. One was anonymity – using anonymous proxies that would change regularly to avoid leaving footprints on servers that could be banned – and the other was CAPTCHA-solving. If these tools were to generate email and forum accounts, the user could not be spending their time manually solving every CAPTCHA that came up – there had to be another way.
Surprisingly, Travis practically lit up at this question. This was a great question, and one that he planned to fully address in the final day. I was top of the class for the moment.
The final webinar was a whirlwind. Travis gave us a live show of exactly how he would set up and run a successful SEO campaign. After a flash quiz to generate some potential products, he hit AdWords to find some effective keywords. He then dug up a list of relevant forums and fired up an article spinner to generate varied texts with inline URLs back to the product. We all watched, eagle-eyed, up to the point where he hit the ‘Go’ button and told us that now we could just sit back and wait for the clicks to start coming in. It was that easy.
“About the proxies and CAPTCHA’s?”
Yes, Travis could hook us up with all that very necessary stuff. He shared a link to one of his websites that specialised in providing both of these services for a competitive fee. No problem.
On a final note, Travis said that he also had a great business opportunity, just for the people who attended this webinar. A product that would sell like hot cakes and would work perfectly with our new SEO skills. Just stay on the call and he’d be back in a few minutes with a presentation.
I thanked Travis and logged off.
Where am I going with this? It’s a stepping stone – Con(fidence) Capitalism or maybe Hope Capitalism.
All of those people we just met are in the same circle, just at different levels. The product doesn’t really matter, the people don’t even really matter – just the personality types and the potential money that might be made. I don’t know if Travis was good at SEO – if he was, he wasn’t giving away any of his secrets. I don’t know if he was rich, but he certainly liked money. He was selling an idea – an idea he may have been sold at an earlier time, and when he realised that it was just an idea, he knew that he’d do well to sell it on to those who hadn’t fully bought it yet. Like the multi-level marketers with boxes full of vitamin gel supplements taking up space in their garages.
What’s important to talk about is that separation. Follow the money. The product is just the vehicle. People are clicks. Clicks are money. What do you need to do to get the clicks, and where will it take you?
Let’s take a look in Part II…