Share this with all your friends and make Facebook a better place

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he-has-cancerHelp a sick child with cancer. Help us raise funds for this poor boy beaten by his stepfather. Learn how to help yourself if you have a heart attack and nobody is around. Isn’t Facebook a fantastic place, you can learn so much and get involved in things that matter through posts that your friends pass around. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. We have all seen these posts that circulate on Facebook and other communities.

What do you think about them? Do you pass them on? Does this kind of messages play on your emotions? Do you like the feeling of helping a poor child somewhere in the word by clicking share? Have you ever tried to verify if the sad story is true? Or do you want to hold on to the dream that you are helping, and avoid checking the background even if there is a grain of doubt? Or are you one of the skeptics who dislike chain letters and write an angry reply instead?

Chain letter may be an old-fashion term from the snail-mail era. But that is really what we are talking about here. They are also called hoaxes, which refer to the content rather than the spreading mechanism. Our modern communities on the net provide an ideal environment for them. It has never before been so easy to share information with a large number of friends globally, just by a click. The content might be anything, but there are some easy ways to identify them.

  • They play on your emotions, often empathy or fear.
  • They tell you to share it with all your friends.
  • There’s often a shocking picture of a claimed victim. (The same picture is often reused in many different chain letters.)
  • It may claim that the victim gets money for each share. (This is never true.)
  • There’s no or very little details of the claimed victim to make it harder to debunk the story.
  • There’s no reference to news articles or other reliable sources, or the article is fake if there is one.

Here comes a couple of examples from different categories.

Help save baby with cancer is a really classical example. Who can resist a sick child? And that thing on the little boy’s face. OMG! In reality, this story is just made up and the boy doesn’t exist. Or the baby in the picture certainly exists, but he has appeared in many different chain letters and nobody knows where the picture comes from or if that thing is fake or real. The promise of one dollar per share is also just made up, there is no such commitment in reality.

YOU COULD SAVE A LOVED ONES LIFE BY KNOWING THIS SIMPLE INFORMATION!!! First aid and medical advice is another common chain letter category. I have attended a number of first aid courses at different levels, and this example is legit as far as I can tell. The described STR-rule is also well known and used elsewhere too. But how do you know that? If you can assess that, you don’t need the advice. And if you can’t, you have no clue if the advice is reliable and accurate. This one might be legit, but that can’t be said about all the other messages of this kind. They can in the worst case be directly harmful! (I have selected to not share one of those here.)

Facebook is not a good info source for matters of life and death. If you truly care about your loved ones and want to be able to help, then there is no substitute for professional first aid training. Trash all chain letters of this kind and sign up for a course today!

[Insert celebrity of your choice] found dead at Dominican Republic resort. This is really a sick form of humor. There’s a web-based generator that can generate hoaxes like this. It even creates fake news pages that can be passed around with the chain letter. I’m including the link to the generator here. I trust that you use it only to learn how to spot these hoaxes, not to make one yourself.

If you see some shocking news like this and the source isn’t one of the big news networks that you recognize, then turn to Google and get a second opinion before you hit share. Well, sites can be faked so Google is a good idea even if you recognize the news source.

But these chain letters are mostly harmless, you might think. Is it really that bad to pass one on? Well, they don’t harm the reader directly. Messages that trick you into downloading a file or opening a site that can contain malware is a different cup of tea. Phishing scams that trick you into entering secret data at a faked site are also truly harmful. Chain letters and hoaxes are not harmful in this way.

But that’s not the full story. There are still several reasons to avoid them:

  • Your own reputation. You may feel good when “helping a sick child”, but do your friends think the same way? Some of them may think you are gullible and easily fooled.
  • You create unnecessary noise on Facebook, or whatever community you are on. It may already be hard enough to spot the relevant posts from 500+ friends and a load of groups. Your friends do not need more junk to cover the valuable posts.
  • Things seem to replicate, especially problems. If you have a habit of sharing chain letters and hoaxes, you contribute to the culture among your friends. You signal that it is OK to share hoaxes and your habit will spread to some of them.
  • If you forward a message with some advice about first aid, a friend uses it and it tunes out to be bad advice. How would you feel? If you share info like this, you also carry responsibility for it.
  • Passing on jokes about someone killed in an accident is really sick humor, even if you might be in shock and believe it when you press share. Double-check before sharing and spare your friends that unnecessary shock.
  • If your account is compromised and misused to spread truly harmful content, it will blend in better in a stream of chain letters. Your friends are less likely to notice any difference and more likely to click on the malicious link from “you”.  Such post will however stick out if your normal posts are strictly no-nonsense.
  • A historical note. Old-school computer folks dislike chain letters because they were seen as a bad thing in the early days of e-mail. This was based on the limited capacity of the computers and telecommunications at that time. Technical capacity is not a problem anymore, today’s bottleneck is our capacity to process all the messages we get. But as said above, even if the technical capacity is there, it is still a bad idea to circulate chain letters.

And by the way. Why should you support this particular child? Just because you got a picture of him? There are probably thousands of real children with the same disease. You feel emotionally involved, that’s good. Let’s use your emotions for something more productive than just passing hoaxes around. Look up a local charity organization that work with children and make a donation while watching the picture. That really matters!

So, to summarize. Don’t feel bad if you have shared chain letters like this. As said, they do no direct harm. But I hope that as many as possible become aware of the downsides and start ignoring them. Our Facebook experience would be tidier.

So now you know how to spot a chain letter. Just click the share button and make sure all your friends on Facebook also know. Hey, wait… :)

Safe surfing,
Micke

Image from About.com Urban legends

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