The trend started, as so many do, on TikTok. Amazon customers, watching packages arrive through Ring doorbell devices, asked the people making the deliveries to dance for the camera. The workers—drivers for “Earth’s most customer-centric company” and therefore highly vulnerable to customer ratings—complied. The Ring owners posted the videos. “I said bust a dance move for the camera and he did it!” read one caption, as an anonymous laborer shimmied, listlessly. Another customer wrote her request in chalk on the path leading up to her door. DO A DANCE, the ground ordered, accompanied by a happy face and the word SMILE. The driver did as instructed. His command performance received more than 1.3 million likes.
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Watching that video, I did what I often do when taking in the news these days: I stared in disbelief, briefly wondered about the difference between the dystopian and the merely weird, and went about my business. But I kept thinking about those clips, posted by customers who saw themselves as directors and populated by people who, in the course of doing one job, had been stage-managed into another.
Dystopias often share a common feature: Amusement, in their skewed worlds, becomes a means of captivity rather than escape. George Orwell’s 1984 had the telescreen, a Ring-like device that surveilled and broadcast at the same time. The totalitarian regime of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 burned books, yet encouraged the watching of television. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World described the “feelies”—movies that, embracing the tactile as well as the visual, were “far more real than reality.” In 1992, Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash imagined a form of virtual entertainment so immersive that it would allow people, essentially, to live within it. He named it the metaverse.
In the years since, the metaverse has leaped from science fiction and into our lives. Microsoft, Alibaba, and ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, have all made significant investments in virtual and augmented reality. Their approaches vary, but their goal is the same: to transform entertainment from something we choose, channel by channel or stream by stream or feed by feed, into something we inhabit. In the metaverse, the promise goes, we will finally be able to do what science fiction foretold: live within our illusions.
No company has placed a bigger bet on this future than Mark Zuckerberg’s. In October 2021, he rebranded Facebook as Meta to plant a flag in this notional landscape. For its new logo, the company redesigned the infinity symbol, all twists with no end. The choice was apt: The aspiration of the renamed company is to engineer a kind of endlessness. Why have mere users when you can have residents?
For now, Meta’s promise of immersive entertainment seems as clunky as the goggles required to access all that limitless fun. But the promise is also redundant: Zuckerberg positions himself as an innovator, but the environment that Meta is marketing already exists. Where were those Amazon drivers doing their dancing, if not in the metaverse?
In the future, the writers warned, we will surrender ourselves to our entertainment. We will become so distracted and dazed by our fictions that we’ll lose our sense of what is real. We will make our escapes so comprehensive that we cannot free ourselves from them. The result will be a populace that forgets how to think, how to empathize with one another, even how to govern and be governed.
That future has already arrived. We live our lives, willingly or not, within the metaverse.
A Vaster Wasteland
When scholars warn of the United States becoming a “post-truth” society, they typically focus on the ills that poison our politics: the misinformation, the mistrust, the president who apparently thought he could edit a hurricane with a Sharpie. But the encroachments of a post-truth world are matters of culture as well.
In 1961, Newton Minow, just appointed by President John F. Kennedy to lead the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech before a convocation of TV-industry leaders. He was blunt. The executives, he said, were filling the air with “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” They were turning TV into “a vast wasteland.”
The epithet stuck. Minow’s speech is best remembered for its criticism of TV, but it was also a prescient acknowledgment of the medium’s power. TV beamed its illusions into home after home, brain after brain. It shaped people’s views of the world even as it distracted them from reality.
Minow made his speech in an era when television was contained to three broadcast channels, to certain hours of the day, and, for that matter, to the living room. Today, of course, screens are everywhere; the entertainment environment is so vast, you can get lost in it. When we finish one series, the streaming platforms humbly suggest what we might like next. When the algorithm gets it right, we binge, disappearing into a fictional world for hours or even days at a time, less couch potato than lotus-eater.
Social media, meanwhile, beckons from the same devices with its own promises of unlimited entertainment. Instagram users peer into the lives of friends and celebrities alike, and post their own touched-up, filtered story for others to consume. TikTok’s endless talent show is so captivating that members of the intelligence community fear China could use the platform to spy on Americans or to disseminate propaganda—feelies as a weapon of war. Even the less photogenic Twitter invites users to enter an alternate realm. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, “It’s a place where people form communities and alliances, nurture friendships and sexual relationships, yell and flirt, cheer and pray.” It’s “a place people don’t just visit but inhabit.”
I’ve inhabited Twitter in that way too—just as I’ve inhabited Instagram and Hulu and Netflix. I don’t want to question the value of entertainment itself—that would be foolish and, in my case, deeply hypocritical. But I do want to question the hold that all of the immersive amusement is gaining over my life, and maybe yours.
Dwell in this environment long enough, and it becomes difficult to process the facts of the world through anything except entertainment. We’ve become so accustomed to its heightened atmosphere that the plain old real version of things starts to seem dull by comparison. A weather app recently sent me a push notification offering to tell me about “interesting storms.” I didn’t know I needed my storms to be interesting. Or consider an email I received from TurboTax. It informed me, cheerily, that “we’ve pulled together this year’s best tax moments and created your own personalized tax story.” Here was the entertainment imperative at its most absurd: Even my Form 1040 comes with a highlight reel.
Such examples may seem trivial, harmless—brands being brands. But each invitation to be entertained reinforces an impulse: to seek diversion whenever possible, to avoid tedium at all costs, to privilege the dramatized version of events over the actual one. To live in the metaverse is to expect that life should play out as it does on our screens. And the stakes are anything but trivial. In the metaverse, it is not shocking but entirely fitting that a game-show host and Twitter personality would become president of the United States.
In the years since Minow delivered his speech, the language of television has come to saturate the way Americans talk about the world around us. People who are deluded, we say, have “lost the plot”; people who have become pariahs have been “canceled.” In earlier ages, people attributed their circumstances to the will of gods and the whims of fate; we attribute ours to the artistic choices of “the writers” and lament that we may be living through America’s final season. These are jokes, of course, but they have an uneasy edge. They suggest a creeping realization that we truly have come to inhabit our entertainment.
Last May, 19 children and two of their teachers were murdered at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The next day, Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of the ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary, shared a message—one of many—that she’d received in response to the massacre: a request from a fan that she write a school-shooting story line into her comedy. “People are that deeply removed from demanding more from the politicians they’ve elected and are instead demanding ‘entertainment,’ ” Brunson wrote on Twitter. “I can’t ask ‘are yall ok’ anymore because the answer is ‘no.’ ”
Brunson’s frustration was understandable. Yet it’s also hard to blame the fans who, as they grieved a real shooting, sought comfort in a fictional one. They have been conditioned to expect that the news will instantaneously become entertainment.
Producers have been ripping plots from the headlines for as long as there have been headlines to rip them from. The difference today is the speed and the scale of the conversion. There are commercial reasons for this frenzy of optioning. In general, plundering reality is much easier and cheaper than inventing something new. The streaming platforms wouldn’t keep making the series, however, if viewers didn’t watch them. And watching them can be disorienting.
The tagline at the start of every episode of Inventing Anna, the 2022 Netflix series, neatly sums up the approach of the new “ripped from the headlines” genre: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all of the parts that are totally made up.” Inventing Anna is the lavishly fictionalized story of Anna Sorokin (more commonly known by her alias, Anna Delvey), a Russian woman who pretended to be a German heiress to gain the trust and then the money of rich people in New York City. It is a tale about lies so brazen that they revealed some well-disguised truths—about the magical thinking of high finance, about America’s enduring susceptibility to the con artist.
Inventing Anna is based on a 2018 New York magazine story by the journalist Jessica Pressler. The show weaves the article—lyrically rendered but truthfully told—into its own version of the story. Inventing Anna is by turns flashy, cheeky, and insightful. It operates in the realm that the postmodernists call hyperreality: Its colors are saturated; its pace is frenetic; it plays, sometimes, less as a drama than as a music video. Most of all, the show sells the idea that an unstable relationship between fact and fiction is its own kind of fun.
In that, Inventing Anna is typical. WeCrashed, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, The Dropout, and many other series repurpose high-profile news events as glossy amusements. Gaslit, Winning Time, A Friend of the Family, Pam & Tommy, Und American Crime Story do similar work with history so recent, it can barely be considered history at all. Many of them are self-consciously products of “prestige TV,” and many of them are quite good: smartly written, slickly produced, and performed by talented actors.
The shows also deliver a voyeuristic thrill that can be difficult for even the most thoroughly reported and artfully told journalism to rival. The promise of the metaverse has always been the ability to inhabit realms that would otherwise be closed to us: In a recent ad, Meta’s Quest 2 headset transports one young woman into an NFL scrum and another into the Ironman suit. A series like The Crown provides a similar experience. We sit with the Royal Family in their bedrooms. We see them fighting. We see them weeping. This is a biopic about lives still being lived.
Of course, such voyeurism is possible only because the shows are not bound by the rules of nonfiction. Like so many entries in the genre, The Crown combines finicky photorealism and breezy artistic license. The series offers a stitch-by-stitch re-creation of the “revenge dress” that Princess Diana debuted after Prince Charles’s infidelity came to light; it also fabricates dialogue, events, and entire characters. In 2020, the United Kingdom’s culture secretary asked Netflix to add a disclaimer to the show making clear that it is, fundamentally, a work of fiction. Netflix declined, saying it was confident that viewers knew the show was fiction. Yet its executives surely understand that the series is appealing precisely because it presents its fictions with the swagger of settled fact.
One night this past fall, my partner and I were watching an episode of Gaslit (about the life of the Watergate celebrity Martha Mitchell). We were both side-screening with our phones, and at some point we realized we were doing the exact same thing: combing Wikipedia to find out whether the scene we’d just watched had actually happened. In this, we were missing the point. When you’re watching a show like Gaslit oder The Crown, you are supposed to accept that the story is true in a broad sense, not a specific one. You are not meant to question the difference between nonfiction and a story that’s been “lightly” fictionalized. And you are definitely not supposed to be on Wikipedia, trying to cross-reference the real history against the one you’re seeing on Starz.
Here my TV-loving self interrupts, indignantly and a little defensively: It’s just TV. It’s all in good fun. And that’s true. I enjoyed Gaslit. And when Super Pumped cast Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington and gave her one apparent note—more camp—I had no choice but to watch. Taken together, though, such series start to destabilize our sense of what is true and what has been invented—or elided—to tell a good story.
Consider the Theranos scandal. Elizabeth Holmes’s company was covered meticulously in real time by journalists, most prominently at The Wall Street Journal, and the full arc of her deceptions was described masterfully by the Journal ’s John Carreyrou in his book, Bad Blood. But the fraud has proved so irresistible that it is now also the subject of a documentary, a true-crime podcast called The Dropout, a Hulu drama also called The Dropout, and, soon, an Adam McKay feature film, adapted from Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, which will also be called Bad Blood. The consumer of all this news and entertainment can be forgiven for mixing up where she got her facts—and whether they’re facts at all.
In a surreal twist, the fictionalization of the Theranos debacle has now become part of the nonfiction story line. Last March, the fraud trial of the former Theranos COO Sunny Balwani was complicated when two of the potential jurors who had been selected to hear the case were dismissed; they had seen episodes of The Dropout and might have been prejudiced by its depiction of the events at issue in the trial.
In the 1990s, media critics worried—rightly—that the news was becoming frivolous, whether in the form of histrionic shoutfests like Crossfire, lurid news magazines like Dateline, or the overheated coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. Then came a boom in entertainment that pretended to be news and to many viewers was indistinguishable from it: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee. Today, the critiques that the news channels were obsessed with ratings, or that too many people had abandoned the 6 o’clock news for The Daily Show, seem quaint. There is no longer any distinction: The news has become entertainment, and entertainment has become the news.
In January 2021, Britain’s Sky TV announced that Kenneth Branagh would be starring as Boris Johnson in a miniseries about the coronavirus pandemic. Asked about the role in September 2022—asked, in particular, about the logic of airing a history of an event that was still unfolding—Branagh demurred. “I think these events are unusual,” he said, “and part of what we must do is acknowledge them.”
Neither a pandemic that has now killed more than 200,000 Britons nor a leader who bungled his way through the disaster was in danger of going unacknowledged by the BBC or DerTimes of London. Yet Branagh’s comment was telling. The rise of these hyperreal TV shows coincides with the decline of the institutions that report on the world as it is. The semi-fictions stake their claims while journalism flails. We have gradually accommodated ourselves to the idea that if an event doesn’t become a limited series or a movie, it hasn’t happened. When news breaks, we shrug. We’ll wait for the miniseries. And take for granted that its version of the story will be true—except for the parts that are totally made up.
The Main Character
By the mid-20thcentury, the historian Warren Susman argued, a great shift was taking place. American values had traditionally emphasized a collection of qualities we might shorthand as “character”: honesty, diligence, an abiding sense of duty. The rise of mass media changed those terms, Susman wrote. In the media-savvy and consumption-oriented society that Americans were building, people came to value—and therefore demand—what Susman called “personality”: charm, likability, the talent to entertain. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”
That demand remains. Now, though, the value is not merely interpersonal charm, but the ability to broadcast it to mass audiences. Social media has truly made each of us a performing self. “All the world’s a stage” was once a metaphor; today, it’s a dull description of life in the metaverse. As the journalist Neal Gabler foresaw in his book Life: The Movie, performance, as a language but also as a value, bleeds into nearly every facet of experience.
A recent H&M ad campaign promised that the brand would make sure that “you are the main character of each day.” In September, my partner booked a hotel room for a weekend trip; the confirmation email vowed that the stay would allow him to “craft your next story.” My iPhone is now in the habit of transforming photographs and videos from my camera roll into mini-movies. The bespoke videos come with a soundtrack selected by the operating system. They also come unprompted: I was recently served up a slideshow, set to strings that Ken Burns might appreciate, of pictures I’d taken of my dog. The aim, of course, is commercial. What better way to encourage customers to be loyal than to tell them their life should be a movie? A life so full that it gets optioned: the new American dream.
Or the new American nightmare. On Twitter, “the main character” is shorthand for the person who will be a given day’s subject of communal scorn. The strangers who pile on, often with vehemence, may be reacting to the target’s legitimate failings or merely to perceived ones. Regardless, they may be engaging in what the psychologist John Suler has described as the online disinhibition effect: the tendency for people in digital spaces to act in ways they never would offline. The disinhibition might originate in an assumption that the digital world differs from the “real” world, or in a sense that online interactions amount to a low-stakes game. But it can lead people to treat the humans on the other side of the screen as not human—not real—at all.
Last July, while Lilly Simon was commuting on the subway in New York, a stranger began filming her without her knowledge or consent. This was when monkeypox, recently declared a global health emergency, was spreading in the city. Simon has a genetic condition that causes tumors to grow at her nerve endings; some of the growths are visible on her skin. The tumors are usually benign, but can lead to painful complications. They are not contagious. The person recording her knew none of this. Instead, the videographer zoomed in on Simon’s legs and arms, analyzing her, and posted the results of their “investigation” on TikTok. Simon, after learning of the video’s existence, posted a reply. “I will not let any of y’all reverse any years of therapy and healing that I had to endure to deal with the condition,” she said in it. In short order, her response went viral, the original video was taken down, and Simon gave an interview about the experience to The New York Times.
A happy ending, of sorts, to an otherwise grim tale of what life can be like in the metaverse: A person, simply trying to get from one place to another, is transformed into a reluctant star of a movie she didn’t know she was in. The dynamics are simple, and stark. The people on our screens look like characters, so we begin to treat them like characters. And characters are, ultimately, expendable; their purpose is to serve the story. When their service is no longer required, they can be written off the show.
Insurrection for the ’Gram
Disinhibition may begin in the online world, but it doesn’t stay there. The dystopian aspects of the metaverse take on a political dimension, though not necessarily in the way that the 20th-century visionaries anticipated. Those writers imagined a populace pacified by empty entertainments. They didn’t foresee that the telescreen might instead incite them to political violence.
My colleague Tom Nichols has argued that one of the primary motivations driving the January 6 insurrectionists was boredom—and a sense that they had a right to be the heroes of their own American Revolution. Certainly, to watch the attack live on TV, as I did that day, was to be struck by how many of the people ransacking the Capitol were having a grand old time. They posed for (incriminating) photos. They livestreamed their vandalism for their followers. They were doing insurrection for the ’gram. Indeed, a striking number of the participants performed their sedition dressed as superheroes. Several tied Trump 2020 flags around their neck, the wrinkled nylon streaking behind them as they plundered.
Some insurrectionists dressed as heroes from another fictional universe: not Marvel or DC, but QAnon. The origins of the QAnon conspiracy theory are convoluted, and its ongoing appeal has a range of explanations. But it has thrived, at least in part, because it is so well suited to the metaverse. Its adherents have filter-bubbled and siloed and red-pilled themselves so completely that they live in a universe of fiction; they trust, above all, in the anonymous showrunner who is writing and directing and producing reality, every once in a while dropping tantalizing clues about what might happen in the next episode. The hero of the show is Donald Trump, the man who has mastered, like perhaps no one else in American history, TV’s powers of manipulation. Its villains are the members of the “deep state,” thousands of demi-humans united in their pedophiliac designs on America’s children.
The efforts to hold the instigators of the insurrection to account have likewise unfolded as entertainment. “Opinion: January 6 Hearings Could Be a Real-Life Summer Blockbuster,” read a CNN headline in May—the unstated corollary being that if the hearings failed at the box office, they would fail at their purpose. (“Lol no one is watching this,” the account of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee tweeted as the hearings were airing, attempting to suggest such a failure.)
The hearings did not fail, though; on the contrary, the first one was watched by some 20 million people—ratings similar to those earned by a Sunday Night Football broadcast. And the success came in part because the January 6 committee so ably turned its findings into compelling TV. The committee summoned well-spoken and, in many cases, telegenic witnesses. It made a point of transforming that day’s chaos into a comprehensive plot. Its production was so successful that DerNew YorkTimesincluded the hearings on its list of 2022’s best TV shows.
The committee understood that for people to care about January 6—for people to take an interest in the greatest coup attempt in American history—the violence and treason had to be translated into that universal American language: a good show.
In September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis arranged for a group of people seeking asylum in the U.S. to board airplanes. They were told that housing, financial assistance, and employment would be waiting for them when they landed. Instead, the planes flew to Martha’s Vineyard, where there was nothing waiting for the confused travelers except a group of equally confused locals. But those locals gave the travelers food and shelter. Immigration lawyers came to help. Journalists obtained copies of the brochures that had been handed out to the asylum seekers, and informed the public of the series of false promises through which human beings had been turned into props.
The send-them-to-the-Vineyard plan had been fueled by TV. After Texas Governor Greg Abbott began busing migrants to places where they would supposedly become a burden to Democrats, “shipping migrants” became a regular topic of conversation on the morning show Fox & Friends, and Fox News in general. The hosts filled their airtime joking about the conveyances that would be necessary to ship people to the Vineyard. The idea was repeated so steadily that, as often happens, the joke became the plan, and then the plan became the reality, and then the asylum seekers, desperate and misled, were sent like Amazon Prime packages to a place selected because Barack Obama vacations there.
And the producers of the whole thing, rather than questioning the premise of their show after it did little besides expose a community rallying to help people in need, instead promised more performances. Senator Ted Cruz—whose father, as it happens, sought asylum in the U.S.—announced that another group of asylum seekers would be shipped to Joe Biden’s vacation spot. (“Rehoboth Beach, Delaware next,” he said.) Abbott continued busing migrants out of Texas—this time the drop-off location was in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’s Washington, D.C., residence. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, not to be outdone, brought audience participation to the show: A fundraising email asked recipients where Republican governors should “ship” migrants next.
“The propagandist’s purpose,” Aldous Huxley observed, “is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” Donald Trump had a habit of demeaning his opponents, en masse, as “vicious, horrible” people. The images have only grown more hallucinatory. In September, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told a gathering of young people in Texas that her Democratic colleagues are “kind of night creatures, like witches and vampires and ghouls.”
The rhetoric may seem absurd, but it serves a purpose. This is language designed to dehumanize. And it is language that has gained traction. Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute published an analysis of QAnon’s hold over Americans. The group asked nearly 20,000 survey respondents whether they agreed with the QAnon belief that “the government, media, and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles.” Nearly a sixth—16 percent—said they did.
“I’m a Real Person”
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the critic Neil Postman described a nation that was losing itself to entertainment. What Newton Minow had called “a vast wasteland” in 1961 had, by the Reagan era, led to what Postman diagnosed as a “vast descent into triviality.” Postman saw a public that confused authority with celebrity, assessing politicians, religious leaders, and educators according not to their wisdom, but to their ability to entertain. He feared that the confusion would continue. He worried that the distinction that informed all others—fact or fiction—would be obliterated in the haze.
In late 2022, The New York Times revealed that George Santos, a newly elected Republican representative from Long Island, had invented or wildly inflated not just his résumé (a familiar political sin) but his entire biography. Santos had, in essence, run as a fictional character and won. His lies and obfuscations—about his education, his employment history, his charitable work, even his religion—were shocking in their brazenness. They were also met, by many, with a collective shrug. “Everyone fabricates their résumé,” one of his constituents told the Times. Another vowed her continued support: “He was never untruthful with me,” she said. Their reactions are reminiscent of the Obama voter who explained to Politico, in 2016, why he would be switching his allegiances: “At least Trump is fun to watch.”
These are Postman’s fears in action. They are also Hannah Arendt’s. Studying societies held in the sway of totalitarian dictators—the very real dystopias of the mid-20th century—Arendt concluded that the ideal subjects of such rule are not the committed believers in the cause. They are instead the people who come to believe in everything and nothing at all: people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exists.
A republic requires citizens; entertainment requires only an audience. In 2020, a former health official worried aloud that “viewers will get tired of another season of coronavirus.” The concern, it turned out, was warranted: Americans have struggled to make sense of a pandemic that refuses to conform to a tidy narrative structure—digestible plots, cathartic conclusions.
Life in the metaverse brings an aching contradiction: We have never been able to share so much of ourselves. And, as study after study has shown, we have never felt more alone. Fictions, at their best, expand our ability to understand the world through other people’s eyes. But fiction can flatten, too. Recall how many Americans, in the grim depths of the pandemic, refused to understand the wearing of masks as anything but “virtue signaling”—the performance of a political view, rather than a genuine public-health measure. Note how many pundits have dismissed well-documented tragedies—children massacred at school, families separated by a callous state—as the work of “crisis actors.” In a functioning society, “I’m a real person” goes without saying. In ours, it is a desperate plea.
This could be how we lose the plot. This could be the somber finale of America: The Limited Series. Or perhaps it’s not too late for us to do what the denizens of the fictional dystopias could not: look up from the screens, seeing the world as it is and one another as we are. Be transported by our entertainment but not bound by it.
“Are you not entertained?” Maximus, the hero of Gladiator, yells to the Roman throngs who treat his pain as their show. We might see something of ourselves in both the captive warrior and the crowd. We might feel his righteous fury. We might recognize their fun. We have never been more entertained. That is our luxury—and our burden.
This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “We’re Already in the Metaverse.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
Lloyds Bank this weekend fired a salvo at Facebook-owner Meta, slamming it for failing to stop a ‘Wild West’ surge in online shopping scams. Britain’s biggest retail bank – which has 26 million customers – blasted the social media giant for enabling so-called ‘purchase’ frauds.
The banking group claimed two-thirds of the scams start on Meta-owned platforms, which also includes Instagram.
Banks and insurance groups have been frustrated for years that social media companies are not made to pay their fair share of compensation to victims for frauds hosted on their platforms.
But it is highly unusual for a lender like Lloyds to take aim at an individual tech firm like Meta.
The intervention puts Lloyds Banking Group boss Charlie Nunn at loggerheads with Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg.
Face-off: Lloyds Banking Group boss Charlie Nunn and Meta executive chairman Mark Zuckerberg
British banks have previously urged ministers to tackle online financial scams amid concerns that criminals are using Facebook and Google to place fraudulent advertisements with impunity.
The failure of internet giants to check the authenticity of digital ads has led to a surge of scams, they claim. These include ‘brand cloning’, where criminals impersonate legitimate businesses to dupe victims into handing over their savings. Purchase fraud tends to target younger consumers who are tricked into paying for sought-after items that don’t actually exist.
Victims are lured by the offer of a cheap deal – often advertised on social media – and then asked to send money from their own secure online bank account direct to the seller via a transfer system known as faster payments.
However, this provides very little protection when things go wrong.
The scam is a small but growing part of online fraud, which now accounts for 40 per cent of all crime and costs £7 billion a year, according to latest government figures.
The number of purchase frauds has soared by 40 per cent since the start of the pandemic to over 117,000 cases in 2022, according to the UK Finance trade body. It coincided with a boom in online shopping, more time spent on social media and shortages of certain goods caused by supply chain issues.
Lloyds, whose brands include Hailfax and Bank of Scotland, estimates that someone falls victim to the scam on a Meta-owned platform every seven minutes, costing consumers £27 million this year alone.
The average amount lost by the victims of purchase scams is around £570. Clothes, trainers, gaming consoles and mobile phones are among the most common goods being falsely advertised for sale.
Lloyds said it reimburses ‘the majority’ of victims and has invested ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ in security systems to beat the scammers.
But refunds don’t address the emotional trauma of being a victim of fraud or stop the flow of money to organised crime, it added.
‘Social media has become the Wild West of online shopping in recent years, with very few checks in place to verify who is selling what,’ said Liz Ziegler, fraud prevention director at Lloyds Banking Group.
The Government’s new national fraud strategy allows banks more time to slow down suspicious payments. But Ziegler said banks couldn’t fight the ‘epidemic of scams’ alone.
‘It’s high time tech companies stepped up to share responsibility for protecting their own customers,’ she said.
‘This means stopping scams at source and contributing to refunds when their platforms are used to defraud innocent victims.’
An amendment to the long-delayed Online Safety Bill requires social media firms to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts, regardless of whether the ads are controlled by the platforms or an intermediary. It followed pressure from consumer groups, charities and the banking industry who claimed the Government’s approach to tackling online fraud was ‘flawed’.
But critics say the proposals still don’t go far enough. ‘Fraudsters don’t just pay for adverts or create fraudulent content that fits within the scope of the Bill,’ said a banking industry source. ‘The exclusion of online marketplaces like Facebook’s is therefore a significant loophole.’
Campaigners say only the threat of fines will force the social media companies to act.
‘Without penalties there’s nothing in it for them to stop the scams from happening,’ said consumer champion Baroness Altmann. She fears the Government is ‘absolutely terrified of upsetting the tech companies’ and of being seen to clamp down on the free market.
James Daley, founder of consumer campaign group Fairer Finance, said social media sites had become ‘a gateway for fraudsters’.
‘Firms like Meta have a clear responsibility to step up and protect their users,’ he said. ‘But if past experience is anything to go by, it’s unlikely these firms will do much if they don’t have to.
‘The Government announced plans to introduce new protections last year, but these have now been kicked into the long grass again.’
Meta said purchase fraud was ‘an industry-wide issue’ with scammers using ‘increasingly sophisticated methods’ to defraud people ‘in a range of ways, including email, text and offline’.
A spokesman said: ‘We don’t want anyone to fall victim to these criminals which is why our platforms have systems to block scams. Financial services advertisers now have to be authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority.’
The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was approached for comment.
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NHS trusts are sharing intimate details about patients’ medical conditions, appointments and treatments with Facebook without consent and despite promising never to do so.
An Observer investigation has uncovered a covert tracking tool in the websites of 20 NHS trusts which has for years collected browsing information and shared it with the tech giant in a major breach of privacy.
The data includes granular details of pages viewed, buttons clicked and keywords searched. It is matched to the user’s IP address – an identifier linked to an individual or household – and in many cases details of their Facebook account.
Information extracted by Meta Pixel can be used by Facebook’s parent company, Meta, for its own business purposes – including improving its targeted advertising services.
Records of information sent to the firm by NHS websites reveal it includes data which – when linked to an individual – could reveal personal medical details.
It was collected from patients who visited hundreds of NHS webpages about HIV, self-harm, gender identity services, sexual health, cancer, children’s treatment and more.
It also includes details of when web users clicked buttons to book an appointment, order a repeat prescription, request a referral or to complete an online counselling course. Millions of patients are potentially affected.
This weekend, 17 of the 20 NHS trusts that were using Meta Pixel confirmed they had pulled the tracking tool from their websites.
Eight issued apologies to patients. Multiple trusts said they had originally installed the tracking pixels to monitor recruitment or charity campaigns and were not aware that they were sending patient data to Facebook. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating.
Der Observer can reveal:
In one case, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS trust shared when a user viewed a patient handbook for HIV medication. The name of the drug and the NHS trust were sent to the company along with the user’s IP address and details of their Facebook user ID.
Alder Hey Children’s trust in Liverpool, sent Facebook details when users visited webpages for sexual development problems, crisis mental health services and eating disorders. It also shared data when users clicked to order repeat prescriptions.
The Tavistock and Portman NHS foundation trust in London shared data with Facebook when users clicked the information page for its gender identity service, which specialises in working with children who have gender dysphoria. Data was also shared when users viewed the webpage for the Portman Clinic, which “offers specialist help with disturbing sexual behaviours”, and clicked for details on how to be referred to the service.
Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS trust shared data with Facebook when a patient clicked buttons indicating they were under 18, lived in Brighton and wanted to access mental health services.
Other NHS trusts sent detailed receipts to Facebook when users accessed pages for appointment bookings or completed online self-help courses. Barts Health NHS trust, which serves a population of 2.5 million in London, shared data with Facebook when a user clicked to “cancel or change an appointment” or added a visit to a particular hospital to their itinerary.
The Royal Marsden, a specialist cancer centre, sent data on patients requesting referrals, viewing information about private care and browsing pages for particular cancer types.
Information sent to the company is likely to include special category health data, which has extra protection in law and is defined as information “about an individual’s past, current or future health status”, including medical conditions, tests and treatment and “any related data which reveals anything about the state of someone’s health”. Using or sharing it without explicit consent or another lawful basis is illegal.
Once the data reaches Facebook’s servers, it is not possible to track exactly how it is used. The company says it prohibits organisations from sending it sensitive health information and has filters to weed such data out when it is received by mistake.
Professor David Leslie, director of ethics at the Alan Turing Institute, said the transfer of data to third parties by the NHS risked damaging the “delicate relationship of trust” with patients. “Our reasonable expectation when we’re accessing an NHS website is that our data won’t be extracted and shared with third-party commercial entities that could [use it] for targeting ads or linking our personal identities to health conditions,” he said.
He accused Meta of doing too little to monitor what information it was being sent. “Meta says we don’t permit certain types of data being sent to us but they haven’t spent enough on resources to audit this,” Christl said.
In most cases, the information sent to Facebook during a test by the Observer was transferred automatically upon loading a website – before the user had selected to “accept” or “decline” cookies – and without explicit consent. Only three of the 20 trusts mentioned Facebook or Meta in their privacy policies at all. Several of the trusts had previously promised patients that their information would not be shared or used for marketing.
Collectively, the 20 NHS trusts found using the tracking tool serve a population of more than 22 million people in England, stretching from Devon to the Pennines. Some had been using it for several years.
In a statement, the trust apologised to patients and said the Meta Pixel had been active on its website in error. “It was installed in relation to a recruitment campaign, and we were not aware that Meta was using this information for marketing purposes,” a spokesperson said. “Immediate action has been taken to remove it.”
The Royal Marsden said it regularly reviewed its privacy policies but did not say whether it planned to remove the pixel. Barts said it was removing trackers from its website “following the disclosure that they were being used to extract personal information beyond the purpose for which they were originally installed, which was to measure responses to recruitment advertising campaigns.”
Several said they were unaware of how data would be used and apologised to patients for failing to get consent. Aside from the 17 who pulled or are pulling the tool, Hertfordshire Partnership trust and Royal Marsden said they were investigating the issues internally and only the Tavistock and Portman did not respond to requests for comment.
The ICO said it had “noted the findings” and was considering the matter. “People have the right to expect that organisations will handle their information securely and that it will only be used for the purpose they are told,” a spokesperson said.
Several leading US hospitals are currently being sued by their patients over their use of the pixels, which are tiny pieces of code that are invisible during normal browsing.
Meta is also facing legal action over accusations of knowingly receiving sensitive health information – including from pages within patient portals – and not taking steps to stop it. The plaintiffs claim Meta violated their medical privacy by intercepting “individually identifiable health information” from its partner websites and “monetising” it.
Jeffrey Koncius, a partner at Kiesel Law in California and one of the attorneys leading the action, said the data transfer by the NHS websites appeared similar to what was happening in the US. “Imagine if a hospital sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg and said, ‘We want you to know that Jeff Koncius is our patient,’” he said. “That’s exactly what’s happening here. It’s just happening electronically.”
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper described the findings as a “shocking discovery” that raised serious questions about the protection of patient information. “The NHS must investigate how this happened and how widespread this alleged data breach is,” she said.
NHS England said individual trusts were responsible for ensuring they followed data protection laws. “The NHS is looking into this issue and will take further action if necessary,” a spokesperson said.
Meta said it had contacted the trusts to remind them of its policies, which prohibited organisations from sending it health data. “We educate advertisers on properly setting up business tools to prevent this from occurring,” the spokesperson said. They added it was website owner’s responsibility to ensure it complied with data protection laws and had obtained consent before sending data.
The company did not answer questions about the effectiveness of its filters designed to weed out “potentially sensitive data”, or which types of information they would block from hospital websites – or say why it permitted NHS trusts to send it data at all, given the high risk it could reveal details about the web user’s health.
“Like any technology, our filters won’t be able to catch everything all of the time. However, we are constantly improving our mechanisms to make sure we catch as much as we can,” a spokesperson said.
The company offers its business tools to advertisers, saying they can help them use health-based advertising to “grow your business”. In one guide, it says data collected through its business tools can improve users’ Facebook experience by showing them ads they “might be interested in”. “You may see ads for hotel deals if you visit travel websites,” it explains.
Sam Smith, at medConfidential, a data privacy campaign group, said it was never appropriate for the tools to be used to collect health information. “There’s no benefit to NHS trusts in giving this information away. It’s like asking a tobacco company to sponsor a cancer ward,” he said. “NHS England is tacitly approving this by not enforcing anything better.”
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