Comics, Credibility, and Compromise: When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Last Monday afternoon, I was sitting in the dentist’s chair when the radio announced the death of Stan Lee. Unlike other comic fans my age, I didn’t read Marvel comics as a kid. All my parents bought me was Archie, but I watched every cartoon I could – X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four. In high school, Marvel continued to reign supreme with X-Men, Blade and others. In college, it was Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher. I’ve gotten back to comics, not Archie, but Marvel and other big names. 

As we approach Thanksgiving in the U.S., I can’t help but think of how thankful I am for Stan Lee and the other big names in comics. I’m thankful to work for a company that engaged one of my favourite artists to create an original Halloween comic. I’m thankful for my local comic shop that provides me with plenty of reading material. While I was sitting in that chair, one of the most uncomfortable places to be, hearing this horrible news about the loss of an icon, I was also thankful that I had the opportunity to meet Stan and get a photo with him. 

As I was reflecting on the loss of a celebrity… an inspiration for many. I realized that I heard the news of Stan's passing on the radio and took it at face value. I didn’t immediately start Googling to see what various websites were reporting. I didn’t change the station to see what another news reports said. I simply accepted it as a fact. We live in an age where we have all become online fact checkers. I remember back in 2012, news went around that Alfonso Ribeiro (Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Carlton) had died. He was not dead, but plenty of people discussed it and shared it, while others were Googling to see if it was true. While I was sad that the news of Stan Lee was true, it was a breath of fresh air to not have to jump on Google and start verifying sources and statements.

I was further surprised this weekend to discover, via the Washington Post, that there are people who make as much as $15,000 a month generating fake news under the guise of satire and parody sites. The stories of people who blindly click like and share was also impressive. Then, I thought about a Facebook friend who once posted, “I know I share a lot of Fake News, I don’t care because I find them funny.” The problem is that everyone else doesn’t necessarily have the critical thinking skills to determine if something is fake or real before they click share. 

While there are clearly social and political implications that we are seeing at a global scale, there’s also security implications to the fake articles and headlines that we see spreading. Our browsers are under a constant threat of attack. When we visit a webpage, our browsers render HTML, client-side languages like JavaScript, and images to display the site for us. During that rendering, exploits targeting vulnerabilities in our browsers and their supporting technologies can be executed. This is one of the methods that attackers commonly use to compromise a host, a stepping stone to the harvesting of personal information or the installation of ransomware. 

It’s such a critical attack vector that the very first row of the very first column of MITRE’s ATT&CK Framework is Drive-by Compromise. Typically, you won’t even know that it has happened, but in the background, after visiting a malicious page, something nefarious is happening. There are steps that we can take with security software and various services to help us browse safer, but just like defensive driving on the road, the best way to stay safe on the information superhighway is defensive browsing. When you hear that someone drove drunk or ran a red light, you instinctively say, “You got lucky this time, next time you probably won’t.” The same is true while surfing the web, when people constantly click on articles with click bait titles or fake images, the risk of a drive-by compromise greatly increases. 

Maybe you won’t click on the next fake headline designed to shock you, but a parent or grandparent might. Become a voice of logic and reason, directing them away from these pages, sites, and social media groups. I find myself regularly commenting on shared fake articles with evidence that they are incorrect, often via links to Snopes and similar websites. So that brings me to one last thing that I am thankful for as we approach Thanksgiving… fact checking websites like Snopes that help to verify what’s real and what’s not. 

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