How to spot a viral hoax

“Everything you’ve ever posted becomes public from today, even messages that have been deleted or the photos not allowed.” Sound familiar? This is part of a passage of text circulating on Instagram in August 2019, and whilst you may not have been fooled by the viral hoax, there are plenty of people who were.

Among those to fall for it were celebrities such as, Julia Roberts, Pink and Usher. And although it may be so worrying in hindsight, it highlights the issues surrounding misinformation on the internet.

Claims that a social media network is changing its terms of service and will make everything public unless you repost a paragraph of text, should be a red flag to users. So why do these hoaxes go viral? And how can you spot them?

Call to Action

Hoaxes are notorious for requesting you do something. This can range from sending money, reposting to protect yourself, or asking you to send the message on to ‘warn’ others.

Some kind of threat

Another way to determine if a message is a hoax is to ask if the message is anyway threatening. A hoax will usually include language that claim the law is against you, your privacy will be compromised, or your account could be hacked.

The use of Authority figures or Media

To make the message more convincing a hoax will often use an authority figure or an outlet that could legitimize the message. Examples could include an IT manager, the police, or, as in the example above, ‘Chanel 13’.

Spelling mistakes and other errors

A classic way to tell if a you are viewing a hoax is similar to that of a phishing email. There will often be typos, different font or text sizes or phrases that simply don’t make sense. If you read the text carefully you are likely to be able to see these errors. An update to Facebook or Twitter’s privacy policy certainly wouldn’t have these!

Do an Internet Search to fact check the information

If you think you’ve spotted a hoax and want to double check you can always check the facts presented in the message online. In the Instagram hoax in August 2019 the text makes reference to the Rome Statute and the UCC. These are global laws determined by the International Criminal Court governing war crimes and genocide, and the US Uniform Commercial Code. Neither is applicable to any aspect of Instagram usage.

Don’t Forward it on or Repost

If you have any doubt the best thing to do is wait and see. It may seem counterproductive but by reposting the message ‘just in case’ you allow more people to see it and contribute to others panicking. Usually, the internet and news outlets work out pretty quickly how legitimate the ‘message’ is. What’s more, when a viral hoax like this one surfaces, usually the Head of the Company will have to comment. As was the case with the August 2019 hoax, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri warned people that the message was not real and that there would be no changes to the company’s policies regarding content ownership. Reposting a hoax could cause your reputation harm if you are associated with believing it was sincere. It is therefore worth waiting to see before making any decisions about sharing this content.

Instagram and other social media sites do have the right to share the data you post with law enforcement, but they will only do so in response to warrants, court orders or when believed it is necessary to prevent a crime. This will be a part of the terms and conditions when you sign up and means that companies can comply with legal requirements imposed on them and requests from law enforcement. The only way to prevent this is to quit the service altogether.

It is also worth noting that when you sign up to a social network, like Facebook or Instagram, you agree to be bound by the terms you signed up under. The website cannot therefore renegotiate those terms again without you giving your express permission. For example, with the introduction of GDPR in Europe, social media networks had to send an email to users explaining how their privacy policy was changing and users had to agree with the click of a button – not by reposting text.

What other signs do you look out for when determining if a post is a hoax? Let us know in the comments below. If you were interested in this post read other ones on similar subjects below: