Show Hide image

New computer virus prompts you to infect others to save yourself

A new ransomware that bears a striking similarity to dystopian sci-fi tropes is making the rounds.

In news that is sure to have Charlie Brooker Ctrl+C-ing and Ctrl+V-ing his way through the next series of Black Mirror, security researchers have discovered a new ransomware that allows users to free their machine if they pass on the malware to others.

Dubbed “Popcorn Time”, the ransomware locks your computer files until you pay one bitcoin (currently worth £617) or, in a dystopian twist, pass the virus on to two other people. If those two others become infected and pay the fee, you will then be given a decryption key to unlock your files.

The former method has been dubbed "The fast and easy way", with the latter labelled "The nasty way" by the malware's developers. 

The ransomware was discovered by security researchers MalwareHunterTeam last week. According to screenshots from the team, those behind the ransomware claim to be a “group of computer students from Syria” and allege that the money will be used to help those affected by the Syrian war.

It is unclear whether there is any truth in this claim or this is simply another strange ploy. The idea that hackers could turn humans against each other is a dystopian trope that occurs repeatedly in fiction, most recently in the upcoming horror film The Belko Experiment.

The malware also bears striking resemblance to the plot of a season three episode of Black Mirror, “Shut Up and Dance.” In this episode (spoilers ahead), hackers infect people with malware that records them doing illicit or illegal activities, and then ask their victims to steal money and even kill others to save their own skin.

Despite being a common trope in fiction, however, this type of ransomware is a relatively new reality. Referral marketing – whereby a customer benefits by passing on a service to others – has gained new popularity with firms such as Uber, but this is one of the first times it has been used for nefarious purposes.

As of yet, it is unclear how many victims have been infected and the malware is currently still being developed. According to Bleeping Computer, the code also indicates that the ransomware may delete a victim’s files permanently if they enter the wrong decryption code four times.

In the meantime it is worth noting that you should always back up your files and never click unknown links. “Popcorn Time” also has nothing to do with the torrenting service of the same name. 

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

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
Show Hide image

Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.