Don’t ruin your reputation: 7 easy ways to spot and avoid an Internet Hoax

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A while back, a friend of mine that I consider smart and well educated updated their Facebook status with something beyond embarrassing not to mention hateful and down right toxic. They were very mad at Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly making a racist speech:

We are not obliged even the least to try to prove to anybody and to the blacks and Arabs that we are superior people. We have demonstrated that to the blacks and Arabs in 1001 ways. The State of Israel that we know of today has not been created by wishful thinking. We have created it at the expenses of intelligence, sweat and blood.

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You get the idea. Apparently Netanyahu had ostensibly spewed out these vile words and more. Getting embroiled in a debate about  Israel-Palestinian conflict is far far from my intent for this post. Instead, my point here is much more mundane: this speech actually never happened.

Take care of internet hoaxes!

Back home, many high profile Ugandans have been pronounced dead on social media and if you are not careful, you find yourself swept by the wave. Do you remember how Musician, Madox Sematimba ‘died’? I bet you have come across several ‘deaths’. Many a time, there have been claims that Facebook was to shut down access for Ugandans! Apparently the Ugandan government had gotten through to the Facebook Inc folks and convinced them to terminate access for Ugandans!

So, how do you spot that mega hoax from a mile away and stay away to save your credibility?

  1. Check the source

For a local hoax story, it is difficult to ascertain the authenticity of the story. This is mainly because we are still lagging behind in terms of content creation especially on the internet. A hoax is less likely to come in the form of an external link (to a different website) or  the spoof is more likely to be a status update or tweet. First look at the person who shared the information. If they are not worth their salt, do not believe it yet. If it is authentic, chances are the big media houses in Uganda will have stories about it even though the reputable Independent fell for a satirical post not too long ago. You can also cross check with the subjects in question – some of these high profile Ugandans now have verified Facebook and Twitter accounts.

For an international hoax, check the link. A URL like bbc.virallinks.ru does not mean it is a BBC article. Sometimes the meta description (that image and summary text that accompany a shared link) can dupe you. So make sure, that link takes you to the likes of the real BBC, CNN, ESPN, Guardian URL (link) as the construction of the link would have you believe.

  1. Learn how social media platforms communicate with their users

If Facebook or Twitter updates their user policies, they do not tell a certain Joseph Owino to help them pass on the message to all on his friend list. Stop forwarding that whatsapp message about Whatsapp increasing its subscription fee! No, Twitter does not communicate to you through a DM from your friend. Do not click on that link!

  1. Do a simple search for the keywords

You will read something that appears shady. Validate your gut feeling by typing the keywords on your favourite search engine. I did the same thing when I read my friend’s post. I knew Netanyahu with all his flaws was not that stupid to say what I had read. It turns out it was a big hoax.

  1. Cross check with reputable media houses

If you see a post claiming that Putin is dead, do the prudent thing and cross check with the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera etc. Big news is not going to break and the big media houses stay silent.

  1. Watch out for Attention Seekers, Trolls and Rumor Mongers

Fine tune your nose and you should be able to sniff out attention seekers from a mile away. You will see posts like: “Baby X has cut in half, still alive! Type Amen in the comment box”; “share the photo of sick person X (usually a child) and Facebook will donate a dollar”. Be wary of such posts encouraging you to engage by liking, retweeting sharing etc. Those are attention seekers who just want you to boost their ego and/or fuel the post and at the same time get a few more ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’. Facebook, Google, et al. are here to make money — not donate money just like that. Do not get me wrong, these organisations have several CSR initiatives. My point is this is not how they work. For example, Mark Zuckberg did indeed donate 25 million US dollars to help the Fight against ebola.

Priscilla and I are donating $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help fight Ebola. The Ebola…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, October 14, 2014

However, he announced it on his Verified Facebook page as well as official press releases rather than a dubious text (whether it be email, Facebook or Twitter DM etc.) insisting that you forward or share multiple times. Also, pay attention to they way the information is created — full caps, questionable grammar are often tell-tale signs of something’s lack of authenticity or veracity.

  1. Delay your reaction

One of the reasons hoaxes such as this tend to spread especially fast on social media is that it takes advantage of precisely what makes social media great: The relationships that bind us. We are more likely to trust — and indeed share — a link or comment we’ve seen shared by a loved one or friend on social media than some random link we’ve come across in a google search. If you are conscious about this, a delay your reaction to mull it over and then investigate rather than simply clicking share you can save yourself much embarrassment.

  1. Check your prejudices

Finally, it is not only relationships with trusted sources that make rumours spread. Rumours and controversy feed off people’s passions and prejudices. Let us use social media as a tool for democracy and thoughtful dialogue and not fall into the trap of pandering to the lowest common denominator with self-righteous proclamations of protest and dissent. THINK BEFORE YOU CLICK.

Image: phys.org