My otherwise pleasant holiday weekend was marred by the re-emergence of a familiar hoax that people can’t seem to help themselves from spreading. It used to take the form of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or some other billionaire doling out free money to people who forward e-mails, comment on Facebook statuses or copy and paste a post.

The billionaire of the moment is now Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The post appeared in several forms, but they all went something like this:

zuckerberg-scam

“So 4 hours from now. ..a few people are supposed to be blessed with the following gift smile emoticon Can’t wait to see who the winners are tonight. Facebook Mark Zuckerberg is going to give away 4.5 million shares of his Facebook stock tonight at midnight; 10% to people like you and me! All you have to do is copy and paste this to your page and post. Facebook is doing this to show what a powerful tool of connection it is !!! Can’t wait to see who wins !!! This is not a hoax !!! It’s on Good Morning America !!”

I was aghast at the number of otherwise reasonable people who shared this obvious hoax. Many of the posts led off with “I saw this on Good Morning America.” In every case that was untrue, since it was never on Good Morning America. I actually messaged a couple of friends and asked, “Did you really see this on Good Morning America?”  Of course, each time, they said, “No.” They were merely copying and pasting what they were told to do. In effect, misleading all of their friends by saying they had seen something that they hadn’t.

There are so many reasons that this doesn’t make sense. The first is that there’s no way to track who has copy/pasted a status.  That would require Facebook sorting through 1 billion or so user posts to see who had shared the status.  Secondly, that’s a completely illegal way to run a contest. Every legitimate contest has rules and age limits and alternate ways to enter.

Mark Zuckerberg does give a lot of money away to charitable foundations, but not to random Facebook commenters. Another clue might be that the only place you’re seeing this information is in Facebook statuses. If this were true, don’t you think it would be maybe on the news or in newspapers or somewhere else on the Internet?

I was seriously beginning to think my friends had confused Mark Zuckerberg with Willy Wonka.  He’s giving out five golden tickets and one lucky winner gets his chocolate factory.

You may say, “What’s the harm in sharing, even if it is a hoax?”  The harm comes not from this obvious hoax. I”m sure everyone who shared it gave the person who started it a grand old time as he or she sat back and laughed at them. But the habit of spreading things as truth on social media that you’ve made absolutely no attempt to verify is a bad one.

When I worked in news, we covered the  case of man who had been accused of being a child molester online by an angry ex. His picture was shared tens of thousands of times online and is still being shared years later, even through there was no truth to the story at all.

According to the police, they weren’t searching for this guy on rape charges. The Facebook account that originally posted the photo was taken down not long after it was posted. But the photo had already been shared 26,000 times and seen by millions of people.

It takes almost no time to look around and verify if there’s any truth to a story. You’re already on the Internet for goodness sake.

So STOP IT!  Pretty please?

~ Cynthia