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Seeing it on Facebook doesn’t make it so

“The thing about quotes from the Internet is that it’s hard to verify their authenticity.”
– Abraham Lincoln

Rosealee Hoffman
Rosealee Hoffman

I think it’s reasonable to assume we all know that quote couldn’t possibly be real, given that President Lincoln was not around long enough to see the Internet. It’s one of those things that is easily discounted since it’s obviously not true.

But there are other bits of information online that are not so easily dismissed. I saw one in particular making the rounds in our area this week, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say, unequivocally, that not a single East Parker County law enforcement agency has any record of a young woman nearly being abducted on I-20 by four masked men carrying batons. I even went so far as to call Benbrook Police Department and Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, in case the original poster was mistaken about the exact location. It didn’t ring a bell to them either. So, right away, I can confirm that at least one part of the post – the part about calling the police – is not accurate.

I get that not everyone is going to take the time to call several different police departments. And I can vouch that it’s time consuming, especially on a Saturday morning. But there are certain clues that can help differentiate between good and bad information.

A good way to spot a fake post is if there is no mention of it being reported to the police department (or if the police have no record of it), no mention of it in the news, it happened to a friend of a friend, and the original poster pleads with you to “like” and “share” it. An easy way to verify these kinds of things is to call the local police department, or even easier, do an Internet search. There are number of fact-checking websites specifically devoted to internet rumors. Snopes.com is particular favorite of mine.

Posts about attempted abductions for human trafficking purposes have a way of going viral because frankly, they’re scary, and well-meaning people of course want to share them as a way of cautioning others. The problem with posts like “some girls tried to carry my daughter out of Dillard’s” and “a man tried to grab my daughter in Target” are very, very rarely true.

The fact of the matter, statistically speaking, is that human traffickers just don’t work that way. A child with a family who would raise an alarm isn’t an attractive target – it draws too much attention to the crime when there are much easier ways to abduct people. Women who are homeless, runaway teenagers, drug addicts, people who don’t have families or jobs, people who are much less likely to be missed – those on the fringes of society are the easiest targets for human traffickers. It disproportionately affects minorities and disadvantaged groups.

According to a report from the International Human Trafficking Institute: “Human traffickers target their victims. They identify men, women and girls who are vulnerable and appear to need money, a better life, love, friendship or security. Traffickers then groom them or construct a scheme that appears attractive to the individual. This process takes care and time.”

So the odds of a woman from this area getting “snatched” are slim to none, at the highest. And the experts in actual human trafficking warn against sharing these kinds of posts because they are wildly inaccurate, and detract from the actual issue.

You might say, “but what harm does it do to share it? Better safe than sorry.”

Well, other than the fact that it contributes to the dumbing down of society through the spread of misinformation, you’re actually aiding people with less than good intentions by spreading it. The truth is, there is often a motive behind these posts, and it’s profitable.

Research suggests that these kinds of posts are often connected to something called “like farming.”  This is an actual business filled with what Snopes calls “professional misinformers.”

Yes, that’s a thing.

To quote Snopes: “Facebook’s algorithms in particular emphasize popular content, and therefore gathering “likes” and “shares” receives a high premium… Like-farmers will gather clicks, which denote popularity, then scrub the original content and replace it with something else (usually a scammy ad of some sort) to bypass Facebook constraints.”

So that post of a sick child where the poster begs you to share so he can get 100,000 likes or he won’t get life-saving surgery? Probably a scam. That photo of a puppy who looks like he’s praying, topped with a quote about how he loves Jesus and if you do too, please type “Amen” and share? Probably just a way to get your name and Facebook information added to lists for future targeting. And that post where you’re told to “please share this so your daughter isn’t drugged and sold into slavery”? I guarantee you it wasn’t originally posted for your daughter’s safety.

This is where clickbait comes in, also known as “response farming.” It’s often used by scammers hoping to get clicks on their ads – which can lead to malware, sharing things without your knowledge on social media, or worse, according to Consumer Affairs.

It’s no coincidence that when I see something weird posted on a Facebook friend’s timeline, or when someone’s profile is duplicated by a scammer, these are always the same people who share clickbait and like-farming-style posts. That’s another harm that sharing without verifying does. It hurts your online security and it lines the pockets of scammers.

That being said, I can’t speak to the intentions of the person who posted about an attempted abduction near Aledo last week. I know that all the people who I saw sharing it certainly meant no harm by doing so, they just wanted to spread what they believed to be a public safety threat.

But sometimes, the greater threat is ourselves, when we actively spread things that aren’t the truth.

Rosealee Hoffman is a staff reporter for The Community News and does not believe anything she sees on Facebook. This article is reprinted from the May 27, 2016 issue of The Community News.

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Rosealee Hoffman

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