Disclaimer: If you are so addicted to Facebook that you honestly believe you are keeping up with your old school/university chums by stalking their profile pages, then this column is not for you. (If that's the case, though, you're probably too busy "liking" your old lab partner's photo of his dog to be reading this column anyway). Also, if you actually copied and pasted the "copyright" message you saw your "friends" posting in a panic, then this column is not for you. Why? Because you should not be on the Internet.
Over the weekend, some hoaxer brewed up a meme that told naïve Facebook dummies that they can protect their precious content and photos by posting some bullcrap message on their page.
If you want to read a funny mea culpa, check out this post by Brian Howard, in which he tries to explain why on Earth he fell victim to the joke. How embarrassing!
Everyone has fallen for some sort of Internet hoax at one point and there are plenty to fall for. I've done my part in creating a few of these, including the picture of the homeless guy with the sign: "Will code HTML for food." It's all hilarious.
I've even fallen for one or two of these things myself, but I have never propagated the prank by passing it along to my entire mailing list. In fact, when someone does send me something, I reply back to inform the entire mailing list that it is false and the sender should be ashamed of him or herself for spreading it.
This approach cuts down on friends and spurious emails.
Now I do not expect the public to understand the intricacies of contracts, terms of service, and copyright. And to demean the users of Facebook as a herd of clueless dummies is unfair. Actually, the user base is made up of the public and they are not stupid by any means. Many are geniuses. Many have cats and nobody with a cat is a bad person. Well, except Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but he's a fictional character.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that Facebook represents all segments of society, not just the dummies who fall for one fraud after another. I have a friend who is a New York Times reporter and he's fallen for at least three major hoaxes over the past few years. You suckers out there are in good company!
So what can you do to avoid falling for such a ruse? I have a list of questions you can ask yourself that may help determine whether you have a hoax on your hands:
1. Does the information come from a shady source? Is there a reference to someone you don’t know? Is the wording about the original source vague and breathless, such as: "This came to my attention after I was told that..."
2. Was the message cut and pasted from someplace else?
3. Did someone tell you to pass the message far and wide to everyone you know?
4. Is screwball stuff misspelled?
5. Is there a disclaimer within the post? (The best one is: "This is not a hoax!")
6. Does it seem plausible on the surface but your gut tells you it is bogus? (Your immediate BS meter is always correct! Fine tune it).
7. Does it somehow encourage you to make a fool of yourself by either posting the hoax or passing it along to others? If you are asked to take action out of the blue by a casual acquaintance, then it's likely a hoax.
8. At the end of the day, is the hoax idiotic when you really look at it closely?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, proceed with caution. And, of course, this will not be the last hoax we'll ever see, so be vigilant!