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Don't Spread Internet Germs

As the flu season begins in the 'real world', do your part to not spread internet 'germs' in the online world

How many of these posts have you seen on your Facebook wall?

Did you know that all of these are either false or misguided readings of the facts? How many have you shared yourself? I will confess that in reading through dozens of posts of my Facebook wall or in a crowded newsfeed on my Twitter account that I have hit 'like', 'share' or 'retweet' on something that was probably too shocking, too unbelievable or too easy to be true.

Tale as old as time 

None of this is new, people have shared gossip and rumors face-to-face, by telephone, over radio call-in shows, via regular mail, via email, via graffiti and who knows, probably by telegraph, carrier pigeon and message in a bottle. Before Facebook posts there was chain mail, and after that email forwards.

Whether out of malice, financial gain, paranoia or for the thrill of some sort of fame these types of messages have been a part of life forever but with the ubiquity and ease of spreading messages via social media it seems that any old hoaxes, conspiracy theories are being joined by new ones at a amazing pace.

The new twist is 'internet fame'--whether providing fame to a particular person or just to see if an idea can spread, there is a multiplication of posts that encourage 'liking' photos to make some sort of statement against bullying, for patriotism, against diseases or any other socially popular sentiment. Unlike true scams where people are tricked into donating to faked illnesses or fraud charities, these posts don't seem to bring any benefit to the originators except for the satisfaction of seeing their message spread like the flu.

More and more of these rumors are linked to politics or political topics. I'm sure that someone on your Facebook wall has shared their outrage over topics regarding immigration, voting, unions, the rich, and the true causes of the Twinkie's demise. These are often wildly mis-represented and meant to inflame. Perhaps you hoped, as I did, that the post-election period would reduce the frequency of these posts. Of course, that hasn't been the case.

How can you innoculate yourself against these messages?

If something shocks you into outrage, you should maybe hold that rage while you do a little research yourself. A great resource for fact-checking the most popular posts is Snopes.com, a site that has researched urban legends from a time long before Facebook and Twitter. Of course, some people have spread rumors about Snopes's motivations, but another reference site FactCheck.org has helped to debunk those who attacked the debunkers behind Snopes.com.

The political and news rumors can often be harder to research due to overstretched media using laxer journalistic standards, the proliferation of more opinionated bloggers and a developing mistrust of media. While more and more reporting is coming from non-traditional media, traditional journalism does try to abide by a set of ethics. These are laid forth in the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. You may disagree with the editorial approach of a particular news outlet, but most 'mainstream' media does follow generally accepted standards on reporting the facts of a story.

As for charitable or fundraising appeals, do a little searching via your favorite search engine. If it is an organization, don't rely on the information presented to you, go to their site (if you can find it) and then also check CharityNavigator.org for information gleaned from IRS public filings for non-profits. If it is one of the new direct appeal fundraising sites for an individual, don't be shy about asking for more information either from the person organizing the donations or from the friend who referred you.

As so many of these rumors involve Facebook's privacy and other settings, be sure to take the time to review your privacy settings on it and other social media sites. There is plenty to be concerned about when sharing your photos, your opinions and your comings and goings. Don't lock down your information on one site and then post photos with all sorts of personal information or your physical location on another that you freely share everything with the world. Changes to policies after you have accepted a site's terms of service are required to be disclosed. If you have any questions, go back and read the terms of service that you probably just clicked 'Accept' on when first signing up.

Is being a carrier of these 'germs' actually harmful?

Is there any harm in reading mallarkey in your social media? Probably not, but you probably should think before hitting the share button. In some cases, unwanted 'charity' such as excess mail containing unwanted pull tabs from soda cans or used books can cost the recipient real money in the labor from accepting your generosity. Always confirm that your efforts and your gifts are actually beneficial to the cause you are trying to help.

These 'news' stories travel so effectively because we all want to be helpful and warn our friends and families (or strangers for that matter) of potential dangers or alert them to opportunities to help others or themselves. It probably all comes down to our evolution into social creatures who depend on our fellow humans for survival. Shared outrage or concern is part of what we seek in social media, reaffirming a sense of community even if it is a farflung community or people we may not have any in person contact.

You want to maintain your trustworthiness among your friends and family. Wouldn't you feel awful if someone made a decision on faulty information you shared? So next time you see something that shocks you, moves you, or something that makes you feel that you should do something, pause and take the time to check it out. It is part of building a better online community and maintaining your reputation online.

C. Ford December 18, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Thanks for this article, I found it informative and full of common sense, as usual. Too bad 'common sense' isn't so common! = ) I found a great breakdown of the fallacies of the "Facebook/copyright" virus at a legal news site here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/c9lsun8 Spells it all out, worth the read!

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