How to Stay Safe from Online Threats and Sane against Fake News

Photo 78
Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech No, your Wi-Fi router, by itself, likely won’t do you any harm.

I got a couple of fascinating questions earlier this week. A reader named Claire asked if Wi-Fi signals were bad for health and how to stay safe online “in this day and age”.

I’ll address these in this post. A bit of warning: It might not be all about Wi-Fi.

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, nor am I a radiologist, or a shrink. What expressed here is my personal opinion. Take it with a grain of salt.

Is Wi-Fi bad for health?

The short answer is no. I hope not, anyway.

For years, folks have been asking the crucial question of whether wireless signals — Wi-Fi, cellular, etc. — are bad for our physical health. Specifically, if they can cause cancer, or even reduce sperm count. (Yikes!)

The deal is nobody knows for sure — I sure don’t — but one thing is clear: If radio frequencies were really bad for us, we wouldn’t have been here. That’s because Wi-Fi-like phenomenons are not human-exclusive.

Wi-Fi signals are a type of waves, as part of the electromagnetic spectrum which is mostly invisible but also covers virtually everything we can see and hear.

In the chart, created by NASA, below, Wi-Fi lies at the same level as Microwave.

EM spectrum chart
NASA The electromagnetic spectrum ranging from lowest energy/longest wavelength (top) to highest energy/shortest wavelength (bottom).

So if Wi-Fi could cause cancer or affect reproductive health, the human race would have suffered a great deal since the first microwave oven arrived in 1946. Instead, we have almost quadrupled in number since, despite plenty of wars.

Among those, I proudly contributed a small part in making two in the past four years. (A very small part indeed considering what my wife had to go through.)

And mind you, considering my line of work — I started tinkering with routers in early 2000 — it’s safe to say I had been more exposed to Wi-Fi than almost anyone.

So, when I say Wi-Fi signals are no more harmful than, say, sunlight, rain, or wind, I speak from experience. The bottom line is you can stop worrying about this aspect of Wi-Fi.

On the other hand, the way we use Wi-Fi — predominantly as the bridge to the Internet — is a different story entirely, which brings us to Claire’s second question.

How to stay safe online?

The virtual world is as dangerous, if not more so than the real one. The problem is it doesn’t feel that way. You might not be aware of how or if it’s been affecting you the wrong way.

So the question of being safe online is broad, especially in this day and age. I’ll try to tackle it from a few different aspects.

How to stay safe from malicious software and web-based scams

Generally, when it comes to online threats, we tend to think of viruses, malware, scams, and ransomware — that sort of thing. Sure, those are terrible, but they are preventable, as long as you’re willing to practice caution.

I’ve written quite a bit about how to stay safe on this front. So check out my post on how to deal with ransomware or the way to keep your router safe from hackers. And then, keep the following in mind.

Use protection tools

If you use Windows 10, the built-in Windows Security app, which is free, is excellent. Use it. (If you use a Mac, there are some free tools for it, too, or you can just put Windows 10 on it as I do.)

On top of that considering getting a router with built-in protection that can reduce, if not stop, bad things from coming into your home network.

Here are a few examples of router-based online protection:

I’ve tried them all and they worked.

Don’t be a click-happy user!

That’s right. Clicking (or tapping) mindlessly on a computer’s screen can get you into big trouble.

I’ve witnessed many instances where folks got their computer infected with ransomware or scammed into paying bad guys a ton of money. All could have been prevented if they didn’t click blindly.

With every click, we give a command — the computer will do something. Most of the time, we think we know what will happen because a link or a button generally behaves consistently. The majority of the time, we’re right! And that’s the problem. We become complacent.

That’s because sometimes, things are not what they seem — a button or a link can be programmed to do to more, or differently, from what that’s presented to you.

For example, you can click here to go to this website’s home page. Try it, it’s safe!

Here’s another example, below is the screenshot of the page where you can download and install Acrobat Reader, one of the most popular applications for viewing PDF files.

Acrobat Reader Download Page
Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

If you just click on the “Download Acrobat Reader” button — which most people would do right away when they get to the page because it is highlighted and inviting — you’ll end up inadvertently installing three more things on your computer.

So you need to uncheck those three boxes first. (By the way, a useful security application should keep you from installing unwanted software. That said, it’s self-evident that McAfee is a terrible one.)

There are millions of tricks like that to make you do things that you are not aware of on the web or your computer. Some are much harder to call out than this case.

It’s safe to say almost all free apps you download from the Internet include some type of unwanted extras. And all of them count on the fact that users will just click.

So, the bottom line is this: Treat your mouse the way you do the trigger on a loaded AK47. Once you’ve hit it, there might be no undoing it. The next time before you click to affirm an action — like “OK,” “Continue,” “Yes,” “Download,” and so on — make sure you know beforehand what your target is.

Knowing when not to click is by far the most effective way to stay safe from bad stuff online. That brings us to this simple truth: You’re your only defense.

You’re the first and last lines of online protection

That’s right. No protection software or IT expert can keep you safe. In the end, it’s only you who can make that happen.

Managing the online world is like driving a car; it requires a particular set of skills. Among which, the ability to be aware of the surroundings and anticipate what might happen next is crucial.

And that’s even more true in the next part of how to be safe.

How to be safe from fake content and misinformation

In this case, by safe, I mean to avoid or not be affected by bad content.

It’s tricky to know what’s real (or facts) and what’s not, online. It’s similar to how to tell a good person from a bad one — that takes life experience.

So, I’ll explain some aspects of how online content works, and maybe from there, you can figure out what’s what yourself. We all live in our own corner of the (cyber) world anyway.

How online content works

There are millions of websites on the world wide web, and most, if not all of them, share one thing in common: They want your attention. Specifically, they want you to visit them as often as can be, and stay for as long as possible.

Online media is similar to a modem. It converts human attention to cash (or influence) and vice versa.

The content, ads, and money cycle

In a nutshell, a website publishes content to attract visitors, who then purchase a product or service, or view and click on ads. All that generates income for the site owner. Some sites, primarily political or religious ones, also aim to influence your point of view one way or another.

On the other end of the spectrum, advertisers take money to put enticing banner and links waiting for user’s clicks. Many websites also pay to place ads on other websites to attract more users so that they can sell more ads. And the world keeps spinning.

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It’s important to note that there’s nothing is wrong with what I described above. It’s just business. I might be trying to shape your point of view right now and also hope to convert some of your visits into cash. I have to — it takes time and resources to produce good content.

The problem arises when a website takes advantage of the fact there’s no accountability and publish misinformation, click baits, fake content, etc. either because of greed or a specific agenda.

The lack of accountability

The more views a website has, the more profit the owner makes. And here’s the sad truth: In cyberspace, popularity, and not much else, is the key to the richness and greater influence.

Specifically, a website can publish misleading or even outright wrong information and still makes money as long as there are people who consume it. In fact, a site’s popularity might allow it to get away with lies and misinformation.

Even when the site needs to correct its content, chances are it will not have to return the money it has made. In other words, getting more views is always more immediately rewarding than delivering genuinely honest and factual content.

While the latter is the right way to build a site’s reputation, it doesn’t necessarily help the site get more views quickly. Meanwhile, there are tricks to increase viewership. So, many sites opt for shortcuts and tricks.

But, still, getting users to visit a website is a tricky business — I speak from experience. And that’s where search engines play a big role.

How search engine optimization works

Since everyone uses a search engine, predominantly Google, to find information online, publishers always try to figure out a way to get their content to appear on top of the search results, using search engine optimization (or SEO).

Basically, SEO is a set of techniques used to make Google’s (or any other search engine’s) algorithms believe that a piece of content is the best fit for a search term. For the most part, this is about making the content useful, easy to read, and include helpful information. So, SEO is a good thing.

However, algorithms are not perfect and can be manipulated. And for years, SEO has been the science of how to do just that. In many cases, implementing SEO tricks deliver a better and faster return on investment than creating good content. At least in the short term.

But there’s more.

Search-inspired content

Every time you type in a search term (a.k.a keyword), the search engine collects it to form a database that allows advertisers and publishers to learn about the popularity of that term — or the search volume.

Based on that, the parties involved can create compelling ads and relevant content. It’s a simple matter of demand and supply.

That is the reason why when there’s a big event, like the release of a new iPhone, you’ll see a tone of content on the subject. Also, you’ll notice that if you often search for something in particular, like “Honda Odyssey,” you’ll suddenly see a ton of adds on cars, everywhere.

What if for some reason a lot of folks search for something that doesn’t exist, you might ask. Well, that’s when they’ll likely find fake content.

Example of fake content: The Windows 11 phenomenon

Here’s an example of an utterly fake website that makes money based on a popular search term. The keyword in question is “Windows 11”.

Officially, Microsft has confirmed that Windows 10 is the last version of the operating system. There’ll be no Windows 11 or Windows 12, etc. Future versions of the operating system will just be a new build number, but the name Windows 10 remains the same.

In short, Microsoft has no intention or even a slight hint of revising Windows beyond 10. If at all, it might be just Windows.

Windows 11 Fake Website
Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech A screenshot of a fake website about the fictitious Windows 11.

Yet, if you Google “Windows 11”, you’ll find at least one website that looks legit with lots of information on this non-existent OS, complete with download links, feature list, and other items. And it’s a popular site, too, with a ton of ads. (I’d recommend not spending too much time on that site if you decided to check it out.)

The lesson: How fake content, misinformation, or conspiracy theories form

The point is the search engine is the epiphany of bias information.

You’ll find almost anything that you search for on the Internet. Many times, your act of searching for something is the reason it is created on the web. Here’s the kicker: I became aware of the fake site above because somebody sent it to me as proof that Windows 11 existed.

So, here’s an overly simplified diagram of how a certain type of misinformation comes to life:

You’re curious about or believe in something different or irregular -> search for proof online daily -> a fake site (or video, or article) is born to capitalize on your attention (and that of others like you) -> you find what you’re looking or use it to spread the lie because you want to prove your point -> Others do the same -> -> the line between the real and the fake starts to get blurry -> The content becomes viral -> other sites patch-write the same material because they want to cash in with the trend -> You don’t know what’s fact and what’s fake anymore.

All the while, the site owner makes money, and you feel comfortable with your skewed knowledge of facts, without knowing you’re been used. That’s partly how many modern conspiracy theories come into existence and thrive. So be careful what you wish for. Really.

How I avoid fake content and misinformation on the web

Again, it’s your call in regard to what you should do. It’s your life to live. But below is what I’ve been doing, and I consider myself pretty safe, so far.

The first thing is to keep an open mind. Don’t get online to validate what you already believe or want to believe. In fact, search for the opposite of that to see what those with different opinions have to say. It’s a good idea to question yourself sometimes.

Take everything you see online with a grain of salt. If you’re at a non-established website, check to make sure it’s easy to read, thorough and consistent. Everyone can build a website, but making a good website still takes a lot of effort.

Be careful with online stories that:

  • Stoke strong emotions, like fear, anger, anxiety, or disgust.
  • Make you feel good about yourself. When we do, we tend to overlook facts.
  • Are outrageous, hard to believe, or based on a popular meme. Generally, life is not black or white — it’s somewhere in between, it’s colorful. Extreme stuff hardly exists.
  • Use a convenient or unverifiable source, like another story (patch-writing) or “people familiar with the matter” (likely non-existent).
  • Opinion-based.

Keep in mind that real photos, videos, and audio can be edited to distort, change, or nudge the fact one way or another. And sometimes, even the most reputable websites can get things wrong, or even intentionally publish lousy content out of greed or an ulterior motive.

So it’s always a good idea to:

  • Fact-check the information. Personally, I use Factcheck.org and Snopes.com. Note: Just because a website has the word fact in its name doesn’t mean it actually a fact-checking site.
  • Verify the information by checking the source when possible. For example, if you check with Microsoft, it’ll be crystal clear that Windows 11 doesn’t exist.
  • Check the uncut direct speech or original documents.

And finally, keep in mind that the fact is independent of what you want, the way you feel, or how popular a piece of content is. Don’t share the content just because you agree with it. Make sure it contains factual information first, which is not easy, but there’s no rush or obligation to share anything you find online, either.

The takeaway

There you go. Before you click one of those share buttons below, here’s the recap:

Wi-Fi is probably not bad for health. But the use of it could get you in all kinds of trouble, some of which you might not know until too late. So, do that with care. At the very least, keep your clicking in check.

Our attention has value, pay it to the party that deserves it. That’s true in the real world and cyberspace as well. Conducting your life while being misinformed or manipulated is arguably worse than having cancer or an infected computer.

And it’s best to to be free of both. Stay safe, everyone!

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