Anatomy of a hoax

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Recently, a hoax went viral on Facebook telling people to copy and paste text into their status to protect the privacy of their photos and posts. I responded by giving my own version of the text showing why it was a hoax. Here is what I posted.

Here’s a popular copy-and-paste post corrected…

Now it’s official[ly a hoax]! It has been published in the media [and the fact there are no specific sources should have made you suspicious]. Facebook has just released the entry price: $5.99 to keep the subscription of your status to be set to “private”. [No, they haven’t.] If you paste this message on your page, [you will show your gullibility.] [A]ll your posts can become public [if you set them as such]. Even the messages that have been deleted or the photos not allowed [to do what?]. After all, it does not cost anything for a simple copy and paste. [Except your pride and self-respect.]

Better safe than sorry is right. [Also put aluminum foil on your head to prevent the Illuminati from bombarding your brain with though-control waves. Better safe than sorry, right?] Channel 13 News [In what city?] was just talking about this change in Facebook’s privacy policy. [When? Who?] Better safe than sorry. [The fact “Better safe than sorry” is being repeated should have made you suspicious.] As of September 26th , 2015 at 01:16 a.m. Eastern standard time [Why such an odd time? And that was a few days ago, so what good does this warning do you now?], I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, or posts, both past and future. By this statement, I [show that I didn’t read Facebook’s terms and policies when I signed up.]

NOTE: Facebook is now a public entity. [It’s a company providing a service you signed up for voluntarily and agreed to the terms and policies.] All members must post a note like this. [No. All members should check Snopes before posting stuff like this.] If you prefer, you can copy and paste this version. [If you prefer, here’s a link to the Snopes article:] If you do not publish a statement [then you won’t be suckered into another wild hoax. SHARE the facts. No, you don’t have to copy and paste.]

Amid the sarcasm (sorry, I couldn’t resist), you can see where I pointed out the holes in the story. The hoax creator claimed facts without attribution, and a simple check on Snopes would disprove the hoax and show that it circulated before. So, why did so many people fall for it again?

The hoax played upon people’s fears of losing control of their personal information (“all your posts can become public”), used peer pressure (“All members must post a note like this”), and found ways to reduce the reader’s resistance (“better safe than sorry”) and effort (“it doesn’t cost anything for a simple copy and paste”). It lent itself to the simple “clicking without thinking” that causes such false information to go viral.

The hoax was also fed by the distrust many of us have of large corporations, especially those that keep private information. Such distrust is warranted. Recently, Experian servers used by T-Mobile to perform credit checks had been breached, affecting as many as 15 million of their customers. Companies can release updates to software that expose critical data, and they can change their terms and conditions to allow advertisers to use more personal information.

But hoaxes and false rumors do nothing to address these problems. In fact, hucksters use hoaxes to sucker people into giving personal information, spending large amounts of money on services that do nothing, and convince them to try “traditional remedies” that are useless at best and dangerous at worst.

When someone makes a claim — especially one that seems to incredible or horrible to be true — we have to question it. We have to look for the holes and contradictions, question the sources (especially when none are given), and watch out for things that don’t seem right. We need to be quicker with the Delete button than the Share button.

This hoax offers another reason why you shouldn’t believe everything you read.