Article 2 of our 2-part blog
It seems that on the Internet, clouded in the anonymity that it provides, we can become far too ignorant towards the consequences that our online actions can have. Online rumor spreading is a perfect example.
That is, the willingness of many to blindly accept and thus circulate baseless, unfounded and often brazenly false rumors across cyberspace.
Why so many are willing to help spread such falsities across the Internet – when in the real world they would likely be more sceptical – is a fascinating question with no easy answer.
But one possible reason why so many rumors garner so much viral success is that many do not realise the possible consequences of their actions, possibly because those seemingly innocuous actions take place behind the apparent safety of a keyboard.
Every false rumor has some kind of detrimental effect, and this article is designed to highlight those potential consequences that you may not realise exist. Before contemplating whether to spread some unverified rumour on the Internet because it “might be true” we would suggest reading the points below that will hopefully show that spreading unverified content across the Web is never responsible or acceptable.
We also have another blog post – 12 reasons not to spread rumours on the Internet here.
False Rumors Help Scammers
No matter how harmless a rumor appears they can still help criminals trick victims with serious scams. Scammers and spammers love it when rumors go viral because they know plenty of people are likely going to be looking for more information on the same subject.
This allows scammers to set up traps that assert to offer “more information”, or “solutions” based on the content of viral rumors. For a scammer, whether a rumor is true or false is irrelevant.
An example of this is the persistent rumor that Facebook will start charging its members to continue using the service. This rumor is extremely prolific and never seems to disappear with thousands of users continually spreading this rumor just in case it is true, despite being obviously false and totally illogical. However the continued circulation of this rumor has allowed scammers to set up both fake webpages and rogue Facebook applications that purport to keep a user’s account free, but ultimately installs malware or harvests a victim’s personal information.
Rumors can be Damaging, Distressing and Dangerous to Individuals
One very real consequence of rumors is that they can be damaging, distressing and even dangerous to the people they target. We see this in the offline world time and time again, be it school-ground rumors or even rumors started by the paparazzi.
What many fail to realise or comprehend is that online rumors have the same possible consequences. Just because a rumor is being shared in the digital world does not make the consequences of it any less real.
This is especially important to remember when passing on rumors about specific people, since online rumors have the potential to impact on people’s lives in a very negative way. For example viral rumors that take on the form of hate campaigns that condemn specific people for their actions are often circulating Facebook and Twitter but do not provide any verifiable sources, and these can lead to much distress for the person targeted and potentially even lead to forms of vigilante “justice”.
It is extremely irresponsible to help circulate unverified rumors that target specific people, or companies. After all, if a message began to circulate with your name attached, would you want others to spread it without due diligence because it might be true?
In 2010 a rumor claiming a specific person was a sexual deviant was mass circulated to hundreds of thousands of Facebook users. Despite the rumor not offering one shred of evidence, users blindly and irresponsibly circulated the unfounded rumor which caused those sharing the name quoted in the rumor much distress. A consequence that was probably not given much thought by those who clicked the “Share” link.
False rumors can be distressing for individuals for entirely different reasons as well. For example “share to donate” rumors that claim sharing a photo results in Facebook donating money to help a sick child. These rumors use photos of ill and disabled children without the permission of their families. Scammers trick users into circulating these photos with false “share to donate” captions and seeing these photos circulate so widely under these false pretences can be very upsetting for the families involved.
Posting false rumours can stir up racial hatred which causes isolation towards ethnic minorities.
Rumors that are designed to stir up racial hatred are extremely popular on the Internet and these rumors are mostly false, or exaggerated. Before you circulate unfounded rumors regarding ethnic minorities, think about whether it has been designed to cause tension between difference races.
A popular example that rears its ugly head every year is the rumor that states poppy collecting has been banned in certain areas of Britain because it offends minorities. That rumor is total nonsense.
False Rumors Induce More False Rumors
Those who create rumors love it when they see their incarnations get circulated at breakneck speed and every time a false rumor goes viral another one will soon be hot on its heels. Essentially, spreading false rumors, no matter how harmless they appear, is going to induce more falsities and untruths in your newsfeed.
Every false rumour circulated devalues the extent to which social networking and the Internet acts as an effective method of spreading true information.
Even if you think a message is completely harmless even if it were false, and the rumor does not apply to anything we discuss above, also take into account this…
… for every false rumor you post you are helping to clog up the Internet with false information. The Internet, and in particular social networking sites like Facebook are potentially fantastic instruments that allow its millions of users to spread information instantaneously, with a click of a button. We can do things like spread awareness, break news and raise money.
But every time false information gets thrown online and circulated it becomes more and more difficult to do that because it lessens the extent to which people believe what they see online. The more nonsense that is circulated on the Internet the more the Internet turns into a cesspool of propaganda and baseless rumor.
The Internet is for everyone. It is the world’s biggest public network and therefore every single Internet user has an inherent responsibility to look after it. Don’t devalue your own experience and the experience of everyone else by posting false information.