The Harm in Hoaxes on Social Media

You’ve probably seen some pretty interesting posts going around on social media. Bill Gates is giving $10,000 to everyone who shares his post! Here’s how to keep Facebook from using your photographs! Hint: it involves sharing that post…see a pattern here?

Social media hoaxes—not to be confused with scams that actually steal money or identifying information—seem harmless on the surface, but they can actually have significant consequences. Other than the general “untrustworthiness” that people associate with online content, there are a few small ways that these “click like and share!” posts can be harmful.

1. Like-Bait

You’ve probably heard the term “click-bait,” which refers to an outrageous headline that’s intended to get you to click on the article. The headline might be highly misleading, but their goal was advertising revenue, which they got when you fell for the crazy headline. 

Like-bait, on the other hand, happens on social media and it’s intended to generate a high number of likes and shares. Like-bait runs the risk of spreading a story that may not be true and spreading misinformation.

2. Fundraising Appeals

However, some social media hoaxes start out as the like bait mentioned above, then once the traction starts to gain ground, they move on to fundraising scams. Using stolen photos (often of sick, injured, or disabled veterans, children, or animals), they craft some outrageous story and direct users to a link where they can donate. 

Is it dangerous to click like on that photo of a precious toddler in a wheelchair, or the old man holding a birthday sign asking for 5,000 Likes? Not really. What you are contributing to, though, is spreading a stolen photo and increasing your friends’ chances of making a donation to a scammer. Facebook accounts that mine for likes typically use heart-wrenching images that they’ve stolen off of other people’s feeds, and have a ridiculous story to go with it. 

3. Celebrity Hoaxes

Like the aforementioned “giving away my fortune” posts, celebrity hoaxes are nothing new. And even if Bill Gates isn’t giving away money to people who share his post, what’s the harm in sharing it just in case? There is a possible connection between those hoaxes and actual criminal scams arriving in your messaging inbox, meaning the share of outrageous hoax posts could be the screening tool scammers use to help pinpoint gullible victims. 

You might not upset the social media platform or the celebrity himself, but you could be shining a giant spotlight on your own account when you share hoaxes online. If you’re willing to fall for a celebrity hoax or a Facebook privacy rules hoax, you just might be willing to believe the scammer’s story when he contacts you directly.

Besides exposing your account and putting scams or frauds in front of your friends and family members, there’s another problem with sharing social media hoaxes.

The more we see these hoaxes, the less likely we are to believe the real news when it happens. One very real viral post—a message that gives you instructions on where to find free summer meals for school children who rely on the free or reduced lunch program during the school year—has been criticized repeatedly as just another fake post, but in reality, it’s genuine and needs to be shared.

When we repeatedly share hoaxes and scams, we can become immune to posts that are real and important. Think before you share.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: It Only Takes Minutes for a Thief to Use Your Data

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