Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Do the internet and your friends a favour in 2015

Screenshot of the Snopes web site

You may have already come up with some new year’s resolutions – it is the 2nd January today after all – but if you’re still looking for ideas, here’s one from me: stop spreading hoaxes on the internet.

People can be fooled really easily, which is why social engineering is a thing. We’ll share something on Facebook or Twitter, without checking its authenticity. Sometimes these things are benign – the story about a month having 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays making it special for example, even though it happens pretty much every year and not once every 823 years. Sharing something like this with your friends may irritate them but it’s unlikely to cause any harm. Same with recently created official-looking pages with extra punctuation (like ‘DisneyWorld.’ or ‘Virgin Atlantic:’) offering 200 PlayStations just for liking and sharing an image.

But some hoaxes can be dangerous. Yesterday a Facebook friend shared a video which purported to show Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, beating someone up as if to prove that he wasn’t a nice person and probably deserved to die. The video is real, but Michael Brown is not in it. Sharing videos like this makes it hard to have an intelligent debate on major issues such as racism and police brutality, and it reinforces peoples’ prejudiced beliefs.

I’ve also seen people share links promising free £150 gift cards for supermarkets, in return for completing a survey. Which could result in your personal information being collected by some unknown entity to sell on, and of course you’ve wasted your time as there’s no gift card at the end of it.

So, this year, let’s do the following:

  1. Follow Snopes.com. Snopes isn’t the only web site out there that debunks urban legends and hoaxes, but it’s one of the most comprehensive and it’s been around longer than I’ve been on the internet, and it’s constantly updated. You can like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or they even have an old-fangled RSS feed that you can subscribe to in something like Feedly. By following them, you’ll often learn that something is a hoax before you have chance to fall for it.
  2. Verify. If a friend posts something that’s particularly shocking or unbelievable, just do a quick search on your favourite search engine. Add in the words ‘hoax’ or ‘fake’ and hopefully you’ll find a reputable site that will debunk it – the aforementioned Snopes, or a newspaper web site for example.
  3. Educate. Once you’ve found that something is fake, tell the person who posted it. You needn’t do it in public if you don’t want to shame them – just drop them a message telling them that something is a hoax with a link. Hopefully, they will take down what they’ve posted to stop it spreading, or even let their friends know it was wrong.

Together, we can make 2015 the year that we fight back against utter bollocks on the internet. Are you with me?

On a related note, here are 86 viral images from 2014 that are fake, and the top fake science stories of 2014. This is what we’re up against, folks.