22 September 2020

I just passed an impossible test on Facebook!

We've all seen those status updates from friends stating that they got 9 out of 10 answers right to a so-called impossible test claiming that "Nobody will get more than 60% of these right!" or something similar, haven't we? Let's look at how these things work, what they do and why they do it. Before going any further, help yourself to a decent dollop of cynicism or you're going to be very disappointed in social media.

Remember the golden rule: if it looks too good to be true, then the chances are that it is not true. If there is the remotest possibility that something happening on social media could be something other than what it looks like, then it is not what it looks like and someone is trying to pull a fast one for profit in some way. Are the people setting these quizzes doing it out of the goodness of their hearts for the enrichment of the human race? Of course not. They're doing it to make money. So how do they make their money? What is their business model?

They all rely on deception to trick users into visiting their pages. One way to do this is to issue a challenge. "Nobody will get more than 60% of these questions right!"

"Really? Hold my beer..."

Another way to tempt people in is to tell them about how a friend did so well, which actually requires said friend's collaboration.

So, you end up on the quiz page and you see one question with a difficulty level that you could probably tackle blindfolded with both arms and a leg tied behind your back and a broomstick up where the sun don't shine. But you only just see it because it's almost drowned out by a sea of advertisements, many of which are animated, distract you from the question and tie your computer's CPU up with a 90% load. You answer the question and attempt to move to the next, but your computer takes forever because the CPU is overloaded trying to display and animate those ads. However, you get there eventually. The next question is displayed somewhere in another sea of ads that tie your machine's CPU up just as much and you realize you don't need to remove the blindfold, the ties or the broomstick to be able to answer it just as ably.

This goes on until you reach the end of the questionnaire, by which time you've been subjected to approximately 2000 ads, your computer is running out of memory and you're wondering where the catch was. You are given your score, which is always at least 80%, but if it isn't 100% then you might be offered the option to re-sit the test (and get shown another 2000 ads). Either way round, you also get the option to post the result on Facebook, which is the "collaboration" required by these systems to tempt your friends to take the test.

What really happened here?

Firstly, the site owners were paid by the advertisers to show you as many ads as humanly possible.

Secondly, high on your success, you wanted to share your achievement on social media. To this end, more often than not, you can deliberately answer all the questions incorrectly and you will still get a score of 80% or more because the aim here is not to test your knowledge in any way, shape or form (the questions wouldn't be that easy if it was) but to make you want to share your achievement. Why? Because it will encourage others to take the test and get bombarded with ads that the site owners are paid to show them.

Thirdly, when you granted the website permission to post your achievement on Facebook, you gave them your e-mail address as part of the authorisation process. Think about that. You gave your e-mail address to an organisation that uses deception to make money out of advertising.

Feel free to remove the blindfold, the ties and the broomstick now, and please burn the broomstick...

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