My feed is full of stories I don't believe.
Scrolling through Facebook every day, I come across Onion headlines, clickbait articles, and propaganda with passably authentic mastheads shared by my friends and family, all resonating half-truths within the echo chamber of my filter bubble.
Introduce into this environment of perpetual factual ambiguity Clone Zone, a new tool that makes it easy to edit any web page on the internet. Pick your canvas of choice—it's as simple as entering a URL. Clone Zone immediately creates an editable copy. Upload your own images, drop in your own text, and share. With Clone Zone, anyone can treat themselves to a New York Times byline or the announcement of a lucrative round of funding on TechCrunch. With this tool, the whole internet is instantly and totally customizable.
Clone Zone is the brainchild of Slava Balasanov and Analisa Teachworth, two artists who run a creative studio in New York called 4Real. Analisa and Slava have been tinkering with Clone Zone, letting their community of artists and web-researcher types into the private beta in order to observe, in a preliminary way, how the tool might be used before it goes live to the wider public. Which happens today.
Earlier this month, on April Fool's Day, Analisa and Slava made a "clone" of TechCrunch and fake-announced closing a $1.8m seed round of venture capital investment. They shared the cloned site to their personal networks, and immediately the likes and reposts came pouring in, along with congratulations from friends and strangers. According to Analisa and Slava, the story was even being passed around the Genius offices—an actually well-funded startup whose core product is in many ways similar to Clone Zone—along with murmurs about the necessity of acquiring this competitor.
Clone Zone has no such VC investment. And even though Analisa and Slava's cloned copy of TechCrunch has a Clone Zone URL and is conspicuously footed by the Clone Zone logo (itself a ripoff of the Google logo, because of course), their false story began to be believed by the very people who could make it become true. The ambiguities between art and commerce, here, are manifold: 4Real emerges from within NEW INC., a tech incubator and coworking space led by the New Museum in New York, where creative workers are given both museum resources and entrepreneurial support. 4Real does design and interactive work for commercial clients while Slava and Analisa maintain their art practices.
They consider Clone Zone to be an artwork, for both legal and conceptual reasons. As an art piece, it definitely has predecessors. In 1998, the Italian artists Eva and Franco Mattes gained notoriety for buying the domain name vaticano.org and using it to undermine the Catholic Church's official website; they later cloned the websites of their contemporaries and exhibited them as their own works. The Yes Men, a culture-jamming collective, have created and maintained plenty of fake websites—for George W. Bush, Dow Chemical, the World Trade Organization, and the New York Times—in their ongoing attempt to impersonate and lampoon figures of authority.
The main difference between these works and Clone Zone is that Clone Zone is a public-facing tool, designed for use by artists and non-artists alike. It's a direct response to the way that information propagates through social networks, and the clones it produces are designed to be shared via Facebook and on Twitter. "We're really interested in modern-day social networks and what it means to be part of a social network," Teachworth explained to me over Google Hangout, "in how you can communicate with others, and how that's changing—from the beginning of Facebook to what we use Facebook for now, and how we interact and how we feel towards each other. The Clone Zone is a place where people can create with each other."
Teachworth wants to see more creativity online; she hopes 4Real, as an agency, will create new tools to encourage such creativity in the future, software tools more fluid and open-ended than just plonking an image onto a Tumblr page.
Still, tools are powerful. Something like Clone Zone has the capacity to cause all manner of disruption, small and large, depending on how it's used—Balasanov told me that an ideal use case scenario would be a clone with an impact on the real world, a wildly-circulated clone believed by everyone.
Well, everyone who doesn't take an extra second to check the URL, that is.
But as browsers and Twitter shares show us less and less of the actual URLs of the websites we're visiting, even Clone Zone's fairly obvious tells can be easy to ignore. A "fake" website generated by Clone Zone could wield the same power as a "real" one, especially in the window of time before people get wise.
Is there such a thing as a "real" website? A website is just a website—we just trust some websites more than others to give us the objective truth. Which, of course, is a fairly subjective experience. "We decide what is a reputable source and what is not. It's not absolute," says Balasanov. "Probably what you read on the New York Times is more true than what you read on Fox News. There's all these relative things. But a website's just a website."
To some extent, our trust in journalism in the age of the social feed has been reduced to an understanding that certain design and branding features convey authenticity: when we see the venerable New York Times "T" (or the Fox News logo, for those of a different persuasion) on a website, we read headlines with confidence. But when anyone can grab the New York Times' page layout, edit it, and share the cloned version on social media, where the details are more likely to be skimmed by readers, the inherent vulnerability of that trust is laid bare.
Of course, hackers have been creating dupes of trusted websites to phish passwords and propagate malware since we started transacting online. Website forgeries are among the most common phishing scams, and because of this, there are tools in place to distinguish "real" from "fake" websites. We're growing more accustomed to using them, scoping address bars for the little green locks vouching for a website's SSL certification, particularly when online banking or following dubious-seeming links.
As more and more disinformation populates our feed and falls into our inboxes, it's up to each individual to approach the internet with a greater measure of skepticism. At the same time, we are being constantly bombarded with conflicting and simultaneous versions of the truth, and the critical tools we need to assess veracity are changing rapidly. Untruths are easy to discover, but truth requires labor. Truth requires more clicks.
Our old assumptions don't quite hold. Buzzfeed does incisive journalism and sponsored listicles in the same page load. So do most of the sites we regularly consult. Add to all of this the general stranger-than-fiction quality of life in the 21st century, and frankly, I begin to wonder if anything I read online is true at all.
"As users, because the way we get information is changing so rapidly, we really have to be conscious of what the sources are," says Balasanov. "There's already so much fake stuff on Facebook. A flood of nonsense. Being able to wade through that and figure out what is important, and what is valuable, is a necessary skill for everyone." Adds Teachworth, "if anything, we want to make people more aware. Make people more conscious, not less."
Teachworth and Balasanov don't know what's going to happen with Clone Zone. They can't anticipate, today, how the tool will be used in the future, particularly if it goes wide. With a few exceptions, the clones made by the beta community have been mostly trials, jokes, and formless experiments reminiscent of the early days of any social platform. What (and who) Clone Zone is for hasn't quite been determined, invented, or formed. So Teachworth and Balasanov are worried about the outcome of unleashing Clone Zone into the world—if only they could be certain what that outcome is. "The first thing is to see how people use it and go from there," says Balasabov.
Adds Teachworth, "the lawyer's advice has just been, 'don't do it.' But we're doing it. It's already happening."
For a sense of what Clone Zone can do, check out this cloned version of Motherboard: