Thursday, April 13, 2017

The dark side of the Internet: the "Quantum Code" scam and its implications

The alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford," together with his assistant, "Tasha," peddling the products of the "Quantum Code" company. You can find the whole movie at Go ahead, click on it, it won't harm your computer. It is a fascinating trip into the depths of human gullibility. And it explains a lot about how communication really works. (update: a copy of the film can be found at

The debate on any issue is normally framed on the concept that facts matter. It is also called the "information deficit model" and it says that if you provide people with the right kind of information, say, about climate science, they will understand it and act accordingly. I don't think I have to tell you that it doesn't work like that. There are many examples of this, but some are truly luminous, such as this one by "Quantum Code." 

This clip is truly amazing: it is all based on the idea that happiness is based on conspicuous consumption. Over and over, you are shown all the perks of being filthy rich: a personal jet plane, big cars, jewels, expensive watches and, yes, a nice looking, uniformed personal assistant, Tasha, who looks totally subservient to her boss and ready to do anything for him. This clip is not just a scam, it is a work of art in its own right. Art, after all, is mostly based on some kind of make-believe process and when we watch a play by Shakespeare we don't worry about whether Hamlet is a historical character or not. 

The same is true, here, for the alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford." He is a purely fictional character, like Hamlet or Captain America. That's clear from the very first sentence that you hear in the clip: "my name is Michael Crawford, yes that guy you might have read about on Forbes and other financial magazines." It takes less than one minute to verify that there doesn't exist anyone with that name who's described on Forbes as a financial tycoon of any kind. 

Maybe a lot of people, out there, are unable to use search engines for debunking this kind of stories. Still, anyone should be wary when hearing "Michael Crawford" telling them that he wants to make them millionaires in exchange for nothing, out of pure philanthropy. Don't they have a grandmother who told them that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch"? To say nothing of the gaping holes in the whole idea. For instance, we are told that the software engineers of Quantum Code "make millions of dollars every year" using the code that they developed. If they can do that, why would they keep working for Quantum Code?

So, how would anyone believe in this so transparent scam? But for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist and this clip is a wonderful demonstration of how the messenger trumps the message in terms of effectiveness. The whole show is based on the quiet assurance of the actor playing the character of Michael Crawford. He is smooth, self-confident, a convincing fatherly figure.

Clearly, you are asked to believe the messenger, not the message. After all, it is what's normally done in politics. You vote for the candidates whom you think you can trust. And trust comes from consistency. The poor vote for the rich, as it happened for Donald Trump, not on the basis of facts or rational considerations. They do that because the personality of the chosen candidate is consistent with the fact that he (rarely she) is rich.

Note how, clearly, the fact that this clip is so easily debunked is not a bug; it is a feature (*). The script of the clip was thought from the beginning as a sucker's bait. Evidently, they want suckers and they make sure that those who fall for the trap are suckers. Later on in the clip, they ask people to pay $250 to open an account with them and I suppose that's how they make money.

But there is something strange, here. Won't they get a better success if they were a little more subtle? Why do they immediately give away the game and screen out everyone who has even a modest ability to verify facts? The trick, here, seems to be that scamming works according to special rules. Apparently, making the scam highly transparent triggers some kind of a short circuit in some people's mind. It makes them think something like, "if this guy is a scammer, why should he make the scam so obvious? Therefore, it cannot be a scam.

Strange but true. I have seen this mechanism at play many times with the story of the alleged nuclear device called the E-Cat. The many gaping holes in the narrative of this pretended energy breakthrough are consistently interpreted by believers as part of a grand strategy by the inventor to maintain secrecy about his invention. Howlers in the narrative make it more believable, not less!

Maybe these considerations are sufficient to explain the Quantum Code story: nothing more than an average scam, although a little more transparent and aggressive than others. I don't know how much the clip may have cost to its developers, but if they manage to catch a few thousands of people who are willing to pay $250, then they can probably make a nice profit on their investment. Perhaps, just a few hundreds would be enough to get even. The site exists also in Italian and in other languages and is backed by an aggressive e-mailing campaign. I am sure they get a good number of contacts.

Yet, I keep thinking that there may be more to this story than just pulling a fast one on suckers. You know how the Internet works today. You are "profiled" and you are fed messages that you are supposed to be interested in. And that you are supposed to believe. So, my impression is that the Quantum Code scam is not so much about having some people paying a little money. Rather, the value of the whole enterprise may be in creating a list of "choice suckers" that they can sell to others. It is a list of people who are not just highly gullible, but also greedy and who have enough money to be able and willing to pay $250 for a scam. They are perfect targets for scammers everywhere. 

This list of A-grade suckers may also have a value for research purposes. How gullible are people on the average? Which fraction of the population would fall for such an obvious scam as this one? I am sure that there are government agencies who need this kind of data to calibrate their propaganda and for them it would be no problem to create this scam as a probe to launch on the Internet. The people on the list would also be a great asset for creating a political movement: they are natural born believers.

In the end, we always face the same problem: we create wonderful gadgets that we think will help us to make things better. And then we discover that, no, they are making things worse. That's the case also for the Internet. It was supposed to favor the free diffusion of information and, in some ways, it does. And that it would bring democracy by making people better informed. But we are discovering that there is a dark side to this capability: the manipulation of information that creates scams, disinformation, fake news, and all the rest. Where that will lead us remains to be seen, but the current omens are not so good (and we are still waiting for the "Internet of things" to appear!).

(*) Telling a lie from the very beginning may be described as the  "blue lie" strategy as described and explained in this article by Jeremy Adam Smith. Blue lies are statements that you know are false or at least very uncertain, but that you profess to believe - or maybe believe for real - in order to show that you belong to the tribe.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)