How to spot a hoax on social media: a quick guide

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hoax is something that tricks people into believing something false and often preposterous. Despite the narrative around the issue of fake news, hoaxes are not new. In fact, evidence of the first hoaxes in the media date as far back as newspapers in the 1700s and 1800s, with hoaxes often seen side by side with actual hard news on the front page.

As far as sharing hoaxes with other people, chain letters of bygone eras were relatively common – these often contained something like a request for money to support a cause, or convincing people to invest in something or enter a competition at a cost.

If you’re an active Facebook user in the 21st century, you’ll be well aware of similar hoaxes doing the rounds on the social network today. You might not be the one sharing them, but our timelines are regularly flooded with celebrities that are reported dead while they aren’t, “competitions” supposedly run by large corporations, or warnings that Facebook will deactivate your account if you do not type a certain keyword in the comments, or share a particular post.

The latest in a string of Facebook hoaxes reads, “Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, invented the word BFF. To make sure your account is safe on Facebook, type BFF in a comment. If it appears green, your account is protected. If it does not appear in green, change your password immediately because it will be hacked”. This post is usually accompanied by a picture of the Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

Snopes, an online fact-checking website, has already confirmed that this post is a hoax that uses a Facebook feature which animates certain common words and phrases when you type them, and automatically changes the colour of the word. This includes words and phrases like “BFF”, “congratulations” and “xoxo”. Typing any of these words will change their colour, and when users click on the words, a brief animation will appear.

But how do you spot a hoax on social media? What are the telltale signs that a post may just be there to trick you into believing something that isn’t true?

Spot the signs

Hoaxes on Facebook exhibit certain very specific characteristics. These posts usually contain a call to action that urges users to comment on the post and to like or share it. Very often they will also ask users to copy and paste the text in their own post. The creators of hoaxes on social media do this to ensure the longevity of a hoax.

When a hoax post is just re-shared, it makes it easier for Facebook or a user to delete it, which makes posts like these disappear more quickly. If a user copies and pastes, this is harder to do, as it will require much more effort to look for and delete individual posts. When original comments are added to these posts, it makes it even more difficult to get rid of, as Facebook’s algorithms will start seeing it as an original post. When users copy and paste a post, it also makes it more likely to be seen by a broader audience and increasingly harder to locate the original source of the hoax.

While hoax posts on Facebook are mostly harmless and simply a time-waster for users, they do sometimes incite anger in users, and also sometimes contain links to malicious online scams that may try to gather personal information from users for the purposes of identity theft or to swindle them out of their money.

You can spot an online hoax by checking online sources like Snopes for information, but keeping an eye out for certain words, phrases and calls to action will already be warning signs. If a post encourages Facebook users to like share and comment, and the source of the information is not immediately verifiable, you’re probably looking at a hoax. If you are asked to copy and paste information, it might be a hoax, so check for the source again.

While many legitimate competitions run by reputable institutions often use the same language as hoax posts, these are discernible from hoaxes because they are posted by legitimate organisations or corporations.

Should you some across a hoax on Facebook, you can report it to Facebook by clicking on the three dots in the top-right corner of the post, and selecting the option to give feedback. If you suspect you might be dealing with something more malicious, you can report online scams on Scambuster.

In an era where it is more difficult than ever to tell fact from fiction, it is a responsible internet citizen’s duty to make sure of the validity of content that is posted online. Don’t get caught in the trap, and report hoaxes to help protect others from being tricked.

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