Press Eats Up 'App' That Helps People Search For Migrant Boats On The Meditarranean... Despite It Not Actually Doing Anything

from the come-on-guys dept

Apparently, last week there was some buzz in the press about a new "app" that was being offered for iPhone users, put together by the charity group Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Grey for Good, a group that's associated with the ad giant Grey Group (itself a part of WPP). The idea behind the app is that it feeds users real-time satellite imagery of the Mediterranean Sea, and if you happen to see a boat full of migrants, you alert MOAS and they'll go check it out. Many in the press ate it up because it hits all the buttons: it's an app (ding!) that lets people feel good (ding!) by pretending they're changing the world (ding!) on a topic of great public interest (ding!). And thus, we got a bunch of stories, though only Reuters went with the most obvious of headlines: Want to save migrants in the Mediterranean? There's an app for that. Other reports appeared at Wired, Mashable, Huffington Post, the Evening Standard and a variety of other, smaller publications.

There's just one issue. The app appears to be complete bullshit -- as the wonderful Twitter account SwiftOnSecurity pointed out:
Following that, a bunch of others started digging in and highlighting that it's clearly a bogus app. Matt Burke pointed out that it appears to be a link to a static image, while Rosyna Keller found a bunch of details about the app, including the fact that it uses images from Google Maps (meaning that they're not real-time or even remotely up to date) and a static weather call for the weather from Misrata, Libya, rather than whatever patch of Mediterranean you think you're looking at. Oh, and also that the app asks for donations and personal info including your passport number. Malika Rodrigues pointed out that the app is up for an award at the Cannes Lions advertising awards, which just happen to be going on this week.
At least as I type this, the app still has a page on the awards website with a heartstring-tugging video about how important this app is:
Of course, there are a variety of things that should have tipped you off. First off, while it's theoretically possible to see how such a thing could be created, real-time satellite imagery is not easily available to just any charity building an app. The video quotes someone from a satellite company, SES, praising the app, and (I guess?) implying that's where the satellite imagery is from. But SES promotes itself as being about communications satellites for connecting teams in different places. I can't find anything on its website about imagery, real-time or otherwise. But, perhaps just as important: how would a random person who actually spotted a boat using such an app be able to distinguish a "refugee" boat from... any other boat?

It's always interesting to see how tech and innovation might help with real challenges, but creating a fake app and a fake campaign, including getting widespread press coverage for something that doesn't appear to actually do anything, seems pretty damn scammy.

Filed Under: apps, isea, mediterranean, migrants, satellite imagery
Companies: grey for good, grey group, moas


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  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 9:54am

    My suspicion

    I suspect that the press isn't so much "eating it up" as they are doing what they've been doing for a very long time: publishing press releases as if they were news.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:12am

      Re: My suspicion

      It is amazing what conditioning over time can accomplish. See Pavlov. I would think the CIA would do better studying this rather than the torture manuals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Max, 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:26am

      Re: My suspicion

      Yup. Unfortunately, it's still supremely hard to get most people to understand that whatever they read or saw on their preferred "news" outlet is essentially indistinguishable by veracity from whatever they saw on a heavy acid trip, unless the source of the original release gets qualified and found to be trustworthy...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:32am

    That's more of that journalistic fact checking we keep hearing about in the mainstream press that all these blogs here lack, am I right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Berenerd (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:48am

    Son of a...you mean to say all those boats I saw were really fleas on my phone?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:49am

    Images from which satellite(s)?

    Seriously gullible people aren't they. I mean Ikonos and Hotbird are two LEO satellites that have civilian access (for a hefty price), and they don't hover the Med. And there's no way in hell civilians are going get access to any US spy sats (KH-11 or KH-12 series).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2016 @ 12:01pm

      Re: Images from which satellite(s)?

      some "repoters" are just every day morons who can write and are looking to make numbers (hits).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 3:50pm

    And thus, we got a bunch of stories, though only Reuters went with the most obvious of headlines: Want to save migrants in the Mediterranean? There's an app for that. Other reports appeared at Wired, Mashable, Huffington Post, the Evening Standard and a variety of other, smaller publications.

    And now that the scam has been revealed all those that were breathlessly reporting on how amazing it was will be sure to present corrections in the same manner as the original article(from page article means front-page correction), so that they can admit to being wrong and shine a light on the lies of the company that pushed the app out.

    ... right?

    Yeah, while I certainly place some blame on companies that pull scams like this, I'd say I place more blame on the idiotic tools that they use for free PR, so eager to get their clicks/readers that they don't even try to fact check what's handed to them, they just rush it out as quickly as possible.

    So long as it remains so easy to fool the 'news' groups, and safe in the sense that those fooled won't call them out on it and admit to having been fooled, individuals and companies will continue to use them for cheap and easy PR.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 6:39pm

    It takes advantage of the mindset of the moment...

    Feel good while not having to put down your smart phone.
    Fix the world.
    Collect kudos for having done "something".
    Press a button, donate, consider it fixed.

    Seriously, asking for passport numbers and no one said wait WTF until Tay did?

    We should pillory the media in this. The race to report first and verify only when a popular enough outsider calls you out keep happening. While they keep paying those on top the big bucks, those bucks seem to have been cut out of research & ethics departments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MrTroy (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 8:44pm

    Pictures of earth, from space

    Real-time pictures aren't as useful as you might expect, unless you're taking pictures from a geo-synchronous sattelite. At 34 degrees north, I'm not sure how feasible it is to get real-time satellite images that are clear enough to identify a small boat.

    See also https://what-if.xkcd.com/32/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    scatman, 21 Jun 2016 @ 5:23am

    pretty funny really

    the bible refers to people as "sheep" for a reason...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 21 Jun 2016 @ 10:03am

    And how does someone tell a migrant boat from a real boat?

    I think Mike's sentence sums this up perfectly:
    how would a random person who actually spotted a boat using such an app be able to distinguish a "refugee" boat from... any other boat?

    So, tell us, app-maker, how does a user tell if a "suspicious" speck is a boat of migrants or a fishing boat? Is there a FAQ that covers this? Can people zoom in on the image?
    And what happens if enough people report the fishing boat speck? Will the app send out the authorities... to the boat which has probably filed their trip with the local coast guard?

    So, yep, someone didn't think this through. However, it's slightly better than "Like and retweet this post if you support migrants".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Jun 2016 @ 11:58pm

    MOAS has cut ties with the company, horrified that it was faked.
    They won an award, and the event runners have said once its all over they might review if giving the award was stupid.
    The talking head for the office of Grey responsible for this clusterfuck decided it was best to attack Tay, and ignore that lots of experts shredded the idea as faked and impossible.

    So why try so hard to get an award? Because thats how you get more business. If you win an award, you are a super star. If your market says lie, cheat, steal to get an award so you can be famous and the industry supports it... you should be in Congress instead.

    Waiting for someone to write an ad-blocker than pays extra attention to this companies offerings, maybe press a button and inform the client the shady work of the ad agency means their brand is much less trustworthy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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