Be wary of Internet hoaxes

Sunday, April 28, 2013
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While it appears that no one suffered as a result of the fake Facebook page a user claiming to represent the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department set up last week, the story in Friday’s Gazette raises some interesting questions about the growing popularity of social media and the public’s reliance on them to keep informed. Caveat emptor.

It is often said, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” but at least the source of information transmitted via this medium can be easily traced. There’s a degree of accountability, as newspapers that don’t tell the truth get sued or lose readers.

With the Internet, it’s a lot harder to know if what you’re reading is true, including the name of the person or organization purportedly taking credit for it — if there even is a name. Hackers with ample technological savvy have proven, time and again, that they can penetrate the largest, seemingly most secure firewalls, and they continue doing so — often, it seems, for sport.

Their pranks — such as the sheriff’s fake Facebook page — tend to be harmless and amusing if not baffling, but occasionally, they are Machiavellian: intended to defame someone, create panic or make money. For example, a hedge fund analyst claimed, during the height of Hurricane Sandy, that power to all of Manhattan had gone out. Last week, someone hacked AP’s Twitter account to report that President Obama had been injured in a White House bombing. The report was debunked in a minute, but not before stock market traders had gotten wind of it and caused prices to plunge. It seems likely that at least some people were victimized by these bogus reports.

While consumers must always remember to consider the source of all news, the government needs to remind operators of social media sites that they have some obligation to verify users’ authenticity and immediately remove fraudulent users and/or posts. And violators who cause harm to people’s health or financial well-being need to be held liable.

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