Online Media Explained and How to Stay Safe: It’s All on You!

LInksys MR7350 Router 11
Your Wi-Fi router, by itself, likely won’t do you any harm.

I’ve been receiving a lot of questions concerning safety. Those along the line of “how to protect my computer from online threats” or “how to be safe in this age of misinformation.” (OK, “sane” is more like it than “safe” in this case.) Some even wonder if Wi-Fi itself is harmful to one’s health.

So, it looks like folks have been anxious. I’ll try to address all that in this post. Please take note: I’ll be blunt. Try not to take it personally.

Dong’s note: I’m not a scientist, nor am I a radiologist or a shrink. What is expressed here is my personal opinion/experience. By the way, I first published this post on June 5, 2020, and updated it on November 1, 2020, to, among other things, make it easier to digest.

It’s your fault!

Right off the bat, let me break it to you that if something happens to you in the cyberworld, chances are it’s your fault. That’s right! You do that to yourself, you ask for it, or even worse, you actively look for it.

Let that sink in. Give yourself a few minutes to deny. Feel offended if that suits you. Or call me names.

Done?

OK, that’s bad news. The good news is: That also means you actually can avoid it. You just need to understand how things work. Or how things are, for that matter.

Nothing is real: That’s just how technology is

The first and foremost thing to remember is, on the Internet, nothing is real — as in what you see is not what you get. It’s called cyberspace or the virtual world for a reason.

At the very fundamental level, everything you see on the screen is not what it is.

Take this page you’re reading, for example. It’s not persistent unless you choose to print it out on a piece of paper.

At the current state, the page looks different if you view it on another computer, browser, or at different times. At the very least, you’ll see different ads. (That is if you have chosen to allow them. Thanks!)

In fact, there’s no file (like a Word file) that holds this web page. The text, images, and other elements lie separately inside a database. As you request the page, the system pulls stuff out and forms the screen in real-time for you to feast your eyes on.

The technology is really cool, and it works well most of the time. But it’s not completely fool-proof — it might go haywire. That’s the reason sometimes you run into an error when surfing a website.

The point here is that what you’re looking at right now is not real. It’s just information being manipulated in a certain way to meet certain user requests. That’s the first thing you’d want to keep in mind when being online.

Again, at the very basic, most honest level, what you see on the screen is not what you think it is.

The content is definitely not (100%) real: It’s a human thing

But let’s forget about how the technology works and assume that this web page is real because you can see it.

In the next level, where mankind uses tech to deal with one another, the information you’re consuming is also not real — as in it’s not necessarily factual.

Again, take this page, for example. It’s not 100% factual. I know that because I wrote it.

That’s right. I’ll be the first to admit that the information posted here can be wrong. Much that I want to be as truthful and honest as can be, my idea of being truthful and honest is limited by my own understanding of the world, and most importantly, my agenda.

So what’s Dong’s agenda?

I’d say that I made this website with a noble mission to help folks make sound tech decisions or influence you the right way. And that’s no bullshit. I actually mean it.

But the thing is, the site needs to make money to sustain itself (and hopefully me, too). And for that, it needs to display ads to an audience. The bigger, more engaged the audience, the better.

So here’s the thing: Most of what you see online is there for the purpose of monitorization or popularity. Or both.

Money, popularity, and the boring fact

And money and popularity complicate everything. Because, just like in the real world, being good and noble doesn’t necessarily make you famous or rich. At least not as easily or as fast as you’d like. You might need to use tactics. Others want shortcuts.

Of course, we’re talking about nuances here. Nobody is purely good or evil. (OK, some might be, but that’s a different story.) We’re generally somewhere in between by different degrees.

So, some websites are more factual than others. I’d say mine belongs to the former, but you need to make that determination for yourself. But one thing is true: Not everything you see online is factual all the time. And even when it is, it’s not 100 percent so.

The more a publisher cares about the popularity of a piece of content, the more likely they need to spice (or change) it up, making it less (or not) factual. Even when they want to report the fact, the sad truth is they need to deviate from it a bit to be successful.

(Unless, of course, if you write about Wi-Fi, which has little room for romanticizing.)

That’s because you, the audience, want to be entertained! And the facts are generally boring. So, from a publisher’s point of view, it’s a matter of priority. And that’s the second thing you’d want to keep in mind when being online.

Why the Internet is a dangerous place

And here’s another sad truth: Most online content providers prioritize money over fact. If you work for a big company, you’ll notice that. During meetings, the main topic is always about how to make (more) money.

I worked for a big news corporation for almost two decades, where my professional goals for each quarter were always set to be more views and clicks.

So, again, let’s get this fact straight: Everything online is about making money off of you, one way or another, by a little or a lot. And all that implies. You’d fool yourself to think otherwise.

A website works like a Cable modem. It converts your attention into cash. And that’s a fair game since we all need to give something to get something.

The problem arises when a party cheats by taking advantage of how the technology works, or the audience’s naivety, or both.

I’d call this practice tech- and emotion-based shenanigans. In other words, they make you pay a lot in money, time, or happiness for nothing or little in return. Or they just make a fool out of you.

The tech-based tricks

This is when a party benefits itself by manipulating the technology to dupe their audience into doing more or different things than they intend to.

Below is the screenshot of the page where you can download and install the free Acrobat Reader, one of the most popular applications for viewing PDF files.

Acrobat Reader Download Page

If you click on the “Download Acrobat Reader” button, which is exactly most would do immediately because it’s highlighted and inviting, you’ll end up inadvertently installing three more things to your computer.

That’s because Adobe, the maker of Acrobat Reader, likely has a deal with McAfee to trick folks into installing the “security” software (what an irony!) onto their computer unknowingly. Sure, there are “disclosure texts” that you can read, but they are purposely designed for folks to overlook.

(By the way, once Acrobat Reader is installed, MacAfee will have embedded its software at multiple places and set it to automatically run each time the computer starts, without you ever knowingly agreeing to that. Nobody knows what exactly the software does in the background, but I can tell you for sure that it wants to take your money.)

So yes, almost all the free apps you download from the Internet include some unwanted extras.

Mind you, this kind of tricks is rather benign. Many others can be a lot more egregiously malicious. Some even cause you to install malware or ransomware on your computer. There’s no limit to bad intention, and the Internet itself is a minefield.

(Find out how to avoid them below.)

Emotion-based dangers

This kind of online traps is much harder to deal with. It plays with our human psyche. To understand how it works, we need to be aware of a couple of things about ourselves.

  • We generally want to be accepted, admired, or validated.
  • It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong, and we don’t want to be wrong in the first place.
  • We search for things online and many times to prove that we’re right, to validate what already believe. Tech makes that so convenient.

And the content providers know all those. How? Well, for one, they are human, too. Also, they understand how search engines work.

Search engine manipulation

Every time you type in a search term (a.k.a keyword), the search engine collects it to form a database, called search volume. Among other things, that determines how many people are searching for the same thing(s) online.

Based on that, the interested parties can create compelling ads and relevant content. It’s a simple matter of demand and supply. The goal is to harvest the most attention to, well, convert into cash.

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. Or, you’ll notice how you’ll suddenly see ads about cars everywhere after searching for “Honda Odyssey.”

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So here’s an interesting question: What if, for some reason, a lot of folks search for something that doesn’t exist? Well, that’s when you’ll find fake content. That’s how conspiracy theories of all kinds come to life and thrive, anyway.

Many times your act of Googling is the reason something comes into existence. As long as you’re willing to give away your attention, that thing will be created to meet your demand.

Here’s a fact: There’s no keyword that returns nothing. Type in even the weirdest search term, and you’ll find something on the Interweb. Try it!

To put in bluntly, if you order bullshit, bullshit will be served. Be careful what you wish for.

Oversharing

This is where it’s entirely your (our) fault. Nobody forces you to share anything online, but folks couldn’t help keeping their Twitter or Facebook page cluttered with what they (want to) believe to be true.

Ask yourself, when did you last check to make sure something is (close to) 100 percent correct before you shared it?

That’s not to mention there are many super-sharers, or influencers, with thousands or even millions of followers, who have agendas or ulterior motives. They can single-handedly start a conspiracy theory if they wish to do so.

In many ways, social media put us into an echo chamber that amplifies our own version of the Internet-derived world, which, as mentioned above, is not real, to begin with.

So depending on how much time you spend online, over time, your “real” world might not be as factual as you believe.

No accountability

The more views a piece of content has, the more profit the owner, or related parties, makes. And here’s the sad truth: In cyberspace, large viewership 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 make money as long as people consume it. And the more folks do that, the more “legit” the site becomes. We believe in popularity.

Even if a website needs to recant a story, chances are it will not have to return the money it has already made out of it. In other words, getting more views is always more immediately rewarding than delivering genuinely honest and factual content.

And that’s all thanks to you. You want to be entertained, or see things that jibe with your “world”. We tend to only see what we want to see.


How to stay safe online

Now that we’ve been on the same page how dangerous the Internet is, let me explain to you what I’d do to stay safe.

How to beat malware and technology-tricks

This category is fairly easy to deal with. Traditionally protection software and hardware help.

Windows 10 Security
Windows 10’s built-in security is an excellent free protection tool.

Use some form of protection

For example, 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 also put Windows 10 on it.)

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 as intended.

But keep in mind that no software or equipment can keep you safe from yourself. So the most important thing here is the fact you’re the last line of defense. That brings us to the one thing that sure will protect you against online threats.

Don’t be that click-happy user!

That’s right. This is, by far, the most effective way to stay safe.

Clicking (or tapping) mindlessly on a screen will get you into big trouble. It literally takes less than a second to click, and the consequences can take hours or even days to repair, if even possible at all.

With every click, we give a command — the computer or computer(s) 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.

Sometimes, as I explained above, things are not what they seem — a button or a link can be programmed to do more, or differently, from what that’s presented to you. And the guy behind that counts on the fact that you’re gonna click!

Here’s the key: Don’t give them that!

So, the bottom line is: Treat your mouse click (or tap on a touchscreen) the way you do the trigger on a loaded AK47. Once you hit it, there’s no undoing it.

The next time, before you click to affirm an action — like “OK”, “Continue”, “Yes”, and so on — make sure you know beforehand what your target is. Or don’t do it!

If you follow that simple rule, I can almost promise you that you’re going to be safe. OK, I promise you that.

How I avoid fake content and misinformation on the web

This part is much harder because it’s personal. The key here is to get over yourself!

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 to see what those with different opinions 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 see it’s easy to read, thorough and consistent. Everyone can build a website, but making good, non-click-baiting content still takes a lot of effort. It can’t be faked.

Don’t skimp the content to look for what you want to see. Learn the context.

Things to watch out for

Here’s the list of things you should be careful when you run into online. Those 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 full of superlatives. Generally, life is not black or white — it’s somewhere in between. So, extreme stuff hardly exists.
  • Use a convenient or unverifiable source or opinion-based.

Good practices

Keep in mind that photos, videos, and audio can be edited to distort, change, or nudge the fact one way or another.

Sometimes, even the most reputable websites can get things wrong or even intentionally publish lousy content out of greed or ulterior motives.

That said, make sure you:

  • 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 with the source when possible.
  • 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 (mostly) factual information first. That sure is not easy, but there’s no rush or obligation to share anything you find online, either.

Why bother if everything is not real anyway?

That’s because your action is real.

The money you spend, the time you might waste, the products you bring home, the fights you have with your loved ones and close friends, and, most consequentially, your vote. Those are real. So you must do them knowing what the hell you’re getting into. Real actions matter.

Oh, your Wi-Fi router is also real. And that brings us to the following endearing and less contentious question.

Is Wi-Fi bad for health?

Well, nobody knows for sure.

But one thing is clear: If the 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
The electromagnetic spectrum ranging from lowest energy/longest wavelength (top) to highest energy/shortest wavelength (bottom).

So if Wi-Fi could cause cancer, affect reproductive health, or were seriously bad for health in any way, 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 couple of years. 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 it.

But turning off your router once in a while is probably a good idea. Among other things, that gives you a break from the crazy cyber world mentioned above.

The takeaway

There you go. Before you click one of those share buttons below — you know you want to! — 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 it’s too late. So, do that with care. At the very least, keep your clicking in check.

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

And it’s best to be free of them all. Be aware of our own potential fallacy, take responsibility, and act accordingly.

Stay safe, everyone!

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