Yahoo invites you to "get the look" of Afghan birthday party massacre aftermath

Online marketing fail

Yahoo's feature allowing readers to buy clothing worn by celebrities straight from the site clearly has a few kinks to iron out. Law professor Rebecca Tushnet reported that the site was offering readers the chance to "get the look" of:

A man holding spent .50 calibre shells look[ing] towards the Spozhmai Hotel on Qargha lake on the outskirts of Kabul on June 22, following an attack by Taliban militants.

Apparently a plaid scarf from EXPRESS (just $19.95), as well as a pair of $275 Prada sandals, is what is needed:

Yahoo have since taken the ad down, telling paidContent, who also reported the story, that:

In an effort to enhance the consumer experience with some new image-tagging technology on Yahoo! News, we experienced a mistagged photo. The photo in question was immediately flagged as inappropriate and the tag was removed.

"Immediately" is a moderately strange way of referring to three days. Tushnet first posted the pic on the 22nd, and it was still up when paidContent reported it on the 25th. More worrying, however, is that the process is not yet fully automated.

Computers may be good, but they aren't that good; it remains someone's job to actually link the pictures to the clothes. Between this and previous mishaps, like when readers of the National Inquirer were offered the chance to get the look of Elizabeth Edwards as she revealed that she was dying of cancer:

Or readers of US celeb mag Star were offered the chance to get the look of Nick Hogan, the son of wrestler Hulk Hogan, who had left a friend with serious brain damage following a car crash:

One would think that maybe the humans in the chain ought to be given a tiny bit more discretion. Or at the very least, filter out keywords like "massacre", "cancer" and "traumatic brain injury".

Oh dear, Yahoo. Oh dear.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon