Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

Deluge of hoax Facebook posts are terrifying people into sharing them

A tidal wave of misinformation designed to scare people into sharing them has been flooding local Facebook groups across the United Kingdom.

A recent investigation by fact-checking charity Full Fact found that members of Facebook groups have been exposed to hundreds of fake posts, including false reports of missing children or deadly snakes on the loose.

According to the study, more than 1,200 false posts have been exposed on these platforms worldwide, and Full Fact has warned that this figure might be the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Such hoax posts are part of a worldwide phenomenon, which is inundating community Facebook groups across the UK with highly emotive and false stories about alarming events supposedly occurring in the local area.

These posts seemed to be designed to terrify communities, such as reports of a ‘serial killer’ supposedly ‘hunting’ in Dundee, Telford and Newbury, or claims a dangerous man with a knife was going ‘door to door’ in Chesterfield, Bicester and Magherafelt in Northern Ireland. 

Many posts have focused on missing children or pensioners – particularly elderly people with dementia. Others have been about unidentified victims of muggings or road accidents or fake appeals to find someone’s birth parents.

The posts have also featured supposedly lost or injured dogs and deadly rattlesnakes allegedly found in unlikely locations – including inside a toilet rim in Princes Risborough.

The reason behind these hoax posts lies in the attention they get. After they’ve received a large number of likes, shares and comments, they are usually edited to lead to external websites via affiliate links, where commissions are earned.

The investigation found at least 115 different communities across the UK have been the victim of hoaxes, including cities like Birmingham, Bristol and many groups overseas.

These fake posts have created mistrust in genuine appeals for help on Facebook, with genuine posts being wrongly dismissed as a hoax.

‘Fraudulent activity is not allowed on our platforms and we’ve removed the violating posts and account brought to our attention. While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to stop scams and the people behind them,’ a Meta spokesperson told Full Fact.

In April, Full Fact wrote to the head of UK content regulation policy at Meta to formally raise concerns about these hoax posts but is yet to receive a reply.

Full Fact acknowledged that it can be difficult to tell when a Facebook post is a hoax, as posts in groups are often used to send out legitimate and important alerts.

However, they provided a list of characteristics that may indicate that a post is false including closing comments, being copied and pasted, using images from elsewhere, coming from pages rather than profiles, using images and language from outside the UK and having red pins or siren emojis.

The charity also advised people to check whether posts had been edited. This can be done by clicking on the three dots in the corner of a post and selecting ‘Edit history’.

They also suggested that users search for the text within a post to check whether it has been shared elsewhere. Scammers often use the same wording, with the location changed.

A Meta spokesperson pointed to the company’s fact-checking operations and said that they were investing in more. They also pointed to recently introduced tools, including features that let group admins more easily remove posts that might include misinformation.

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