How many hoaxes have you unknowingly believed? The problem, of course, is that we often don’t know that we’ve fallen for one until much later. After all, if we knew a hoax was a hoax, we wouldn’t have fallen for it in the first place. Instagram is one of many sites where hoaxes can go viral, and if you use Instagram, you may have been a victim.
Plenty of people destroyed their iPhones thanks to one of the most rampant hoaxes in 2013. There are sites out there that help with debunking rumors and checking facts, but those sites are often after-the-fact. The only way to prevent falling for future hoaxes is to study past examples and learn how to recognize one when you see it.
Here are some of the most notorious hoaxes that swept through Instagram and some tips that would’ve helped to catch and avoid them.
The “Imposter Account” Hoax
Back in October 2013, just after the American government shut down, a bunch of accounts impersonating Sallie Mae began to crop up on Instagram: @theofficialsalliemae_, @officialsalliemaefund and @officialsalliemaeig are just a few of those. Taking advantage of the political situation, these accounts promised student-loan forgiveness to anyone who followed, reposted, and tagged said accounts.
Sallie Mae soon came out with an official announcement that denied any sort of loan forgiveness contest, and many impulsive Instagram users had their plans for early retirement crushed. As it turns out, Sallie Mae doesn’t even have an Instagram account.
Identifying Features: If an Instagram handle looks suspicious, it deserves higher scrutiny. Underscores, extra numbers, strange characters, and buzzwords like “official” should be red flags that indicate a potential imposter. When in doubt, always search the organization’s website for a list of their actual social media accounts.
The “Easy Giveaway” Hoax
In January 2014, an account impersonating Oprah Winfrey appeared on Instagram under the handle @OPRAH_SCHOLAR. The promise was simple and enticing: the first 50,000 users to follow the account would each receive a $20,000 scholarship to any college. At approximately 100,000 followers, the account disappeared.
Though Oprah’s official channels denied the legitimacy of the contest, the hoax still spread like wildfire. Did no one stop and consider that Oprah would’ve essentially been giving away $1 billion for a few thousand social media followers? An ounce of critical thinking is all it would’ve taken to conclude fake.
Identifying Features: Not every instance of the “First 100 followers get X!” routine is fake. In fact, many of them are legitimate. The red flag that should set you off is when a reward just sounds too good to be true, especially if the only effort you need to put in is to click Follow or Like.
“First 100 followers will get a brand new mousepad”? Okay, that’s reasonable.
“First 100 followers will get a brand new Toyota”? Be skeptical.
The “Chain Letter” Hoax
Remember back in the 80s and 90s when you’d receive an email about a girl who fell down a well, died, and would come to haunt you if you didn’t forward said email to at least 10 other people? The chain letter tradition is alive and well on social media, and Instagram is no exception.
In late 2013, a message began circulating Instagram: the service would execute a mass deletion of inactive and spam accounts on December 20. To protect your account, all you had to do was repost the warning, mention @ActiveAccountSafe, and use the hashtag #ActiveAccountSafe.
Identifying Features: In the same way that a legitimate service will never ask you for your password, a legitimate service will never use a chain letter as a way to make important decisions or announcements, especially when that decision is as serious as account genocide. Always assume that a chain letter is fake until proven otherwise.
If you ever stumble across something that sounds too good to be true or smells fishy, be skeptical. Do some research, run a few Google queries, see if anyone else is reporting it to be a hoax, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution. On the Internet, if it seems unbelievable, you probably shouldn’t believe it.
Did you fall for any of these hoaxes? How about other social-media hoaxes? Share your experiences in the comments.
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