he-has-cancer

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

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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Lee Rigby

Whose job is it to catch terrorists, MI5’s or Facebook’s?

The sad killing of British soldier Lee Rigby has been in the headlines lately after release of a report about how authorities handled the case. Publicity was boosted because the committee thinks Facebook is responsible for the killing. They think the social media giant has a clear obligation to identify and report people who plan attacks like this. Just like the fact that phone companies report everybody who are talking about terrorism and the postal service sends a copy of all fishy letters to the Scotland Yard. I’m sure you get the sarcasm. What happened is that British agencies, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, had identified the killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, as interesting persons before the attack. They did however fail to investigate properly and apparently made no attempts to get the suspects’ communications from Facebook. There would have been several ways for them to do that, by a direct request from the police to Facebook or by the secret intelligence connections between GCHQ and NSA. Meanwhile Facebook's internal controls had flagged the killers’ communications and automatically closed their accounts. Facebook did however never report this to the British agencies. Which gave the Brits a convenient scapegoat to focus on instead of the fact that they never asked for that data. Ok, so the Brits blame Facebook. Let’s take a closer look at some numbers and what they really are demanding. There’s about 1,6 billion users total on Facebook. 1,3 billion monthly active and about 860 million daily active users. These users share around 5 billion items and send over 10 billion messages every day. This creates a total stream of around 10 million items per hour and 173 000 per second. Quite a haystack to look for terrorists in! Facebook has some 8 300 employees. If every single one of them, Mark Zuckerberg included, would spend their full working day monitoring messages and shared items, they would have to do over 60 items per second to keep up. Needless to say, any kind of monitoring must be automated for volumes like this. Facebook is monitoring its content automatically. Some keywords and phrases trigger actions, which can lead to closure of accounts. This is understandable as no company want to be a safe haven for criminals and many kinds of harmful activities are prohibited in the user agreement. But Facebook is walking a thin line here. Their primary task is not to be a law enforcement agency but to provide a social media service. They must also be well aware of the fact that reporting innocent people to the authorities is highly irresponsible. Commonly accepted practices of justice are not obeyed anymore when dealing with potential security threats and there is no transparency. There are numerous cases where western authorities have detained and even tortured innocent persons, apparently based on some very vague indications. Maher Arar’s case is a well-known example. So the bar for reporting someone must be high. It is easy for an Internet service to throw out a suspected user. They are after all not paying anything and Facebook have no obligation to let them be users. This ensures compliance with the user terms, no criminal activities allowed. But the threshold to report someone is naturally a lot higher. Especially when the volume forces Facebook to make automated decisions. This is not a sign of carelessness from Facebook’s side, it’s because people by default are entitled to communication privacy. It is also a direct consequence of the fact that terrorism suspicions are handled outside the normal justice system in many western countries. You carry a heavy responsibility if you feed innocent peoples’ data into a system like that. Let’s face it. There’s a large number of criminal conversations going on right now both on Facebook and other social services. Many terrorists are also on the phone right now and some are picking up deliveries with items related to planned attacks. Nobody is expecting the phone company to routinely listen in to identify potential terrorists and nobody is expecting the post to check parcels randomly. Facebook may not report every flagged conversation, but they are at least doing something to not be a safe haven for terrorists. Still they are the only of these services that the Brits call a safe haven. Not very logical. The simple reason for this apparent inconsistency is naturally the need for a scapegoat. The British agencies failed to investigate so they need someone else to blame. But there is a more dangerous aspect hidden here as well. Snowden made us aware of the privacy threats on Internet. The wide-spread mass surveillance has so far to a large extent been secret and even illegal. Pandora’s Box is open now and authorities all over the world are racing to get legal rights to mass surveillance, before the large masses understand what it really would mean. Putting pressure on Facebook fits that agenda perfectly. To be fair, one can naturally also ask if Facebook could have done more. A calm and balanced debate about that is welcome and beneficial. The flagged messages is probably quite a haystack too. To what extent is Facebook reviewing those messages manually, and could this process be improved to catch more potential killers? And at the same time avoid reporting any innocent users. To illustrate that this isn’t as simple as many think. People are asking why Facebook didn’t react on stuff containing the phrase “let’s kill a soldier”. Well, this blog post contains it too. Am I a killer because of that? Should this post be flagged and given to MI5?   Safe surfing, Micke    

Nov 28, 2014
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Poll: What does clicking Like really mean to you?

Social media is here to stay and it definitively changes our way to communicate. One new trend is the ability to communicate instantly without writing or saying anything. Good examples are Facebook’s Like-button and the indicators for what you are doing or feeling. Facebook’s Like-button is no doubt the most popular and important feature in this category. You really can’t be a Facebook user without getting in touch with it. But the big question is what you really mean by clicking Like? It sounds simple, but may be more complex than you think. You do not only express support for the post you like, it is also a social gesture towards the poster. You show that you have read the post and want to stay in touch. Another interesting question is how to deal with good posts about bad things. We see them almost daily. Someone is writing an excellent post about something that is very wrong. You really dislike the topic of the post even if you think it’s good that someone brings it up. You agree about something you dislike. Should you click Like? Does a like target the post or the topic of a post? There’s no generic rule for this and we all act differently. More activity, likes and comments, boost a post and makes it more visible. So it would make sense to like the post as we want to spread awareness about the problem. But it still feels wrong to like something that makes you feel sick. So that’s the poll question for today. How do you act when you see a good post about something bad? Do you click Like? [polldaddy poll=8445608]   Safe surfing, Micke  

Nov 13, 2014
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