A viral hoax 'copyright' declaration that asked Facebook users to copy and paste the message on their status bar, has triggered a thought wave among experts around the world.
The fake message, which said people will be "under protection of copyrights laws" if they followed the instructions in it, was lapped up by many users over the years.
However, even after it was figured out that the message was hoax, it kept reappearing at regular intervals, bemusing Facebook users and security experts.
Like other viral hoaxes in Facebook show, at many levels this hoax revealed the naivety of people who fall for blatant lies and obvious misrepresentations of facts. It is also argued that the way people react to these hoaxes throws light on their psychological make-up as well.
Do these hoaxes play into users' fear? Do they demonstrate a serious problems with the social media?
IBTimes India asked an expert. In an email conversation with us, Dave Vronay, who has worked for Microsoft for over 15 years and is currently the founder and CEO of Social media platform called 'Heard', discussed the topic.
Here is an excerpt of the conversation:
Why do you think hoaxes like these gain prominence and go viral?
Vroney: Cons work because the victim wants to believe they are true. In this case, Facebook's lack of protection for their users' personal information predisposes the audience to believe even the most exaggerated abuses could be true.
People feel powerless against Facebook, and at some level passing these things on is a way of getting some small measure of satisfaction – both for the person who invents it and for those who pass it on. The idea that Facebook finally got caught is so appealing we are willing to overlook the questionable provenance of the information.
Why do you think Facebook members share them? Is it because they feel compelled to trust a 'friend'?
Vroney: There are several things going on here.
First, just because someone passes along information it does not necessarily mean that they believe it. Many times people are just expressing some emotional connection or resonance with the content.
There are also social dynamics at work. If I know a rumor is false, there is a high social bar to expose it. I could debate the erroneous claims one by one, but all that would do is make me "that guy" – the one who takes everything too seriously.
For most people, it is simple game theory at work. The information could be true or not. They could pass it on or not. The downside of passing on information that may be false is less than the downside of failing to pass on information that may be true. In most cases, the safest thing to do is to circulate it.
The fact these things come from our friends is also a factor, and sometimes a powerful one. Systems like Facebook are in the business of collecting and selling personal information, so it should come as no surprise that they encourage users to think any information shared on the site has a high pedigree. This is also why they push so hard to have "verified" users. They say it is for the user's "protection" but really it is about getting a more data about the user. From Facebook's point of view, hoax behavior is all good. Every item that goes viral gives them more information about users' psychology and their social network. They can then sell all of that to advertisers.
The hoax has been around for years, but why do people really never learn a lesson?
Vroney: Sites like Snopes have existed for years as well, and yet it seems most people do not take the time to check any preposterous email or message before passing it on. It really is just human nature.
Most of us don't want to live in the world where they have to question everything anyone says, and as a result we are vulnerable to these confidence games.
What does this trend say about consumers "fear"?
Vroney: This particular hoax plays into consumers' growing distrust for sites, like Facebook, that make their business by harvesting the personal information of their users and auctioning it off to the highest bidder. This fear is actually quite valid, to the extent that the average person would object to Facebook's business practices if they actually knew what these were.
A little fear can be an educational tool, and if it helps consumers educate themselves, it may ultimately be a good thing. Both for the consumers themselves and those of us who are making systems that provide similar functionality without trafficking in human data
What are the solutions for the problem? How do we stop unreasonable hoaxes from going viral in social networks?
Vroney: Rumors can spread in social networks. That is just a fact and there is nothing really that can be done to stop it. Again, these networks were not designed to distribute factually accurate information.
That said, there are several technologies that can cut down on the negative side of this.
First, not all communication is best served by a social network in the first place. Social networks lack reputation, a key feature needed for reliable communication. If every post an individual received came with a clear score of how many spams and hoaxes the sender had forwarded in the past, the recipient would be far less likely to believe it. Networks like Heard do not use friends or followers at all. Content is matched to readers based on real-time reputation and classification algorithms.
Another technology that holds promise is badging. A badge is a verified fact about a user that is free from personally identifiable information. So a person can have a badge that says they area verified Microsoft employee, but no one – not even Microsoft – is able to look at that badge and figure out who that employee is. Heard calls this "verified not identified." Once badges become more common, articles that would benefit from a badge would look empty and suspicious without one. Our society uses and expects badges in many trust scenarios in normal life – from shop workers to policemen – so it is no surprise that badges have the same benefits online.