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Netmenaces and Other Internet Stupidity

Hypocrisy: A Dramatic Play In Two Acts

2021-03-28 8 min read hypocrites

[So as to not bury the lede, what follows is a story highlighting the remarkable hypocrisy being displayed by a world-spanning, highly-respected institution of journalism, the Associated Press.]

Act I - A pistol hangs on the wall…

There is a quote, attributed to the great playwright Anton Chekhov: “If, in the first act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.

The following quote is my pistol, and by the end of this post, it’s going to get fired.

"Hypocrites get offended by the truth" - Jess C. Scott

It all began nearly five years ago. I was doing some early-morning Google searches, looking for compromised sites. That’s when I first discovered them: The Term Paper SEO Hackers. I’m sure that they had been around for a while, but I just hadn’t noticed them. I had been concentrating more on the folks who whacked sites to boost the search engine standing of their boner pill outlets. That day, what caught my eye was the utter brazenness of The Term Paper SEO Hacker’s actions - these clowns had hacked the U.S. Capitol’s website.

Thus began an interesting little tête-à-tête between the fine, upstanding purveyors of pre-written term/research papers (sold to so-called students with more money than morals) and me.

Somehow, these irreproachable entrepreneurs (whose business model is based on feeding college plagiarist’s desire to cheat their way to better grades) ended up getting SEO links to their web storefronts placed on compromised sites all over the Internet.

No one knows how it happens (or so they claim…), it just does.

The term paper vendor in that first encounter was an outfit called SpeedyPaper - but they aren’t the only game in town. Far from it. The market for pre-written term/research papers appears to be very competitive. A rather large assortment of vendors seems to be fighting tooth-and-claw, each seeking to gain some advantage over their peers, sometimes using very unscrupulous tactics.

Somehow - magically - websites are hacked.

Hundreds of links pointing back to their storefronts simply appear so that search engines become optimized.

It’s all dark and mysterious.

The prevailing wisdom (as espoused by SpeedyPaper) was that this process involves Eeeeevil Competitors attempting to make them look bad.

(Note 1: Eeeeevil Competitors are like that. Always going around, hacking sites to boost your search engine placement and thus make you look bad. Damn those Eeeeevil Competitors!)

(Note 2: I’ve been known to entertain the notion that web hackin' freelancers were somehow convinced that they might be paid to hack sites and deliver click-throughs as part of some twisted affiliate program, complete with referrer tokens. But hey… what do I know…? Those odd web request parameters being sent to SpeedyPaper’s site were probably totally innocent.)

My role in this ongoing spectacle has been to notify the folks playing the part of the Poor Unsuspecting Victim and try to get their sites cleaned up.

It was a role that I was happy to play.

Until yesterday.

Act II - The pistol fires…

Yesterday, while trolling for hacked sites, I happened to throw a few term/research paper-related words into the mix for old-time’s sake. I scrolled through a few pages of results and then my eye lighted on something that, literally, made me gasp. There was a result from apnews.com, the Associated Press.

“Oh hell no…,” I thought, “They didn’t hack the Associated Press…"

No.

No, they didn’t.

The truth was worse.

Much worse.

It turns out that the Associated Press has a portion of it’s website where, for a fee, organizations can have press releases posted. And there, in the middle of the press releases section, suffused with an aura of respectability provided by the Associated Press was an article titled, “6 Best Essay Writing Services Available Online - AP News

Google results

Now, it’s important to note that there is a disclaimer placed on these press releases: “Press release content from $ORGANIZATION. The AP news staff was not involved in its creation.” It’s important to note that because, obviously, having a disclaimer makes it all better.

Or not…

Actually, it gets even worse.

First though, let’s summarize: There are organizations who exist to provide pre-written term/research papers and essays. A review of the websites of these companies finds that they’re all pretty similar - they tend to be chock full of verbiage designed to reinforce the idea that needing to purchase a pre-written paper is all someone else’s fault. You have too many assignments, you poor overworked college student. No one could keep up. It isn’t plagiarism, it’s time-management. They all tend to have breathless testimonials, glowingly describing their wonderful customer service. They even have incentives for planning your plagiarism - they steeply jack up their prices should you need your paper at the last minute. The message: being organized about your cheating saves you money.

They all have one other thing in common: every site claims that their papers will not be caught by the plagiarism detection software/services used by universities.

So, inherently, they’re all saying this: Yes, you’re cheating. But we’ll make sure you don’t get caught.

Let’s make no mistake about this: it absolutely is cheating. Every university has some kind of code of conduct or ethics that specifically states: engaging in plagiarism is cheating.

To me, organizations that make their money aiding and abetting academic dishonesty by encouraging plagiarism are a pretty skeevy lot.

But those organizations (and a bunch of other semi-shady outfits) have found a way to rehabilitate their images: paying a few bucks to get links and mentions on the website of the Associated Press. Hmmm… this proposition seems so oddly… familiar. You pay some money to get something you don’t deserve. Now where would I have heard of something like that before?

Remember when I said it was worse?

Please, if you would, follow this link to a Google search showing an amazing list of press releases on the AP site. (Note: I’m not going to directly link to any of them. I don’t want to give them any more undeserved traction than they’ve already purchased…)

These are press releases providing “reviews” and “lists of top facts” about essay writing websites. These amount to recommendations for the best way to commit academic misconduct - and there are literally hundreds of these press releases being legitimized by the Associated Press.

The. Associated. Press.

The Associated Press, winner of 54 Pulitzer Prizes.

The Associated Press, whose website states, “For 170 years, we have been breaking news and covering the world’s biggest stories, always committed to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism.

The Associated Press, in whose own “Statement of News Values and Principles” - right on the first damned page - says “We don’t plagiarize, and we respect copyright.”

The Associated Press, has become a shill for skeevy purveyors of plagiarism.

And it doesn’t just end with term papers. Apparently, the AP is partnering with a questionable public relations firm called KISSPR. The AP’s press releases section on their website has an entire directory specifically dedicated to press release content from KISSPR. It’s all so very, very cozy.

Those term paper “reviews” are a product of that KISSPR relationship. As are “reviews” of a herpes treatment, hair growth supplements, and other equally questionable products.

Many of these press releases are thinly veiled advertisements for questionable products from questionable businesses masquerading as news. All of this is being legitimized on the back of the reputation of the Associated Press. You can bet that once these press releases hit the AP site, they’re being referenced and re-referenced with some sort of phrasing like “As reviewed on the Associated Press website,” or “As reported on the Associated Press website.”

Personally, I’m disgusted.

I’m disgusted by the term paper sellers.

I’m disgusted by the business model of a company like KISSPR - To me, they’re just professional appliers of porcine lipstick.

I’m disgusted - most of all - by the Associated Press.

But, in the end, I can only be disgusted. No laws are being broken here. The Associated Press is choosing to sell its soul for the filthy lucre being tossed their way by KISSPR. KISSPR is charging their clients even more to facilitate the placement of these press releases. Everybody wins… except journalistic ethics and integrity.

Remember when the ethics and integrity of the people we trusted to report the news actually meant something? Remember when truth used to matter? Now, all of that ethical crap is tossed aside - a relic of a bygone era - because padding the bottom line is much more important than journalistic integrity.

What does a news organization become when it abandons ethics and integrity? What happens when reporting accurately and honestly takes a back seat to an income stream generated by publishing anything some PR flack decides to throw in front of you?

What happened to the truth?

Finally, if you want to do a little looking, you might find that some of these “reviews” have made their way out from under the press releases portion of the AP site and are listed as news articles. They’re still tagged with the “Paid Content” disclaimer, which - to me - somehow makes the whole thing even sadder. I happened to find one article that recommended my favorite recipient of website hacking miracles, SpeedyPaper, and I threw up in my mouth just a little bit. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find more egregious examples, because the whole sordid mess has me feeling just a little bit tired and dejected.

In the end, I have just two things to say to the Associated Press:

  • Trust is the most valuable, hard-earned commodity any of us can possess. I hope that you were paid handsomely for yours…

  • Are you feeling offended?

Bang!

-TL
Tom Liston
Owner, Principal Consultant
Bad Wolf Security, LLC
and
Senior Technical Engineer
Counter Hack
Twitter: @tliston
March 28, 2021