Why it's so hard to kill Facebook privacy hoaxes

Why? Because they rely on users not really understanding how the social network works.
Published September 30 2015

Facebook privacy hoaxes just won't die. It seems like every few months, some extended family member or high school "friend" will post a big block of legalese-style text, urging others to share it in their own feeds with a promise that it will somehow protect their privacy.

Two different ones are circulating now. One claims that Facebook will now start charging a subscription fee to keep posts private — unless the user copies and pastes the message advertising the fee into their Facebook status.

But, of course, the company plans no such thing. And Facebook has fact-checked similar posts that have gone viral in the past. So why do the hoaxes keep coming back?

Perhaps newer users haven't been shamed by their Facebook friends for posting them yet. But James Grimmelmann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has researched Facebook privacy, said the hoaxes fit into a tradition of viral digital media, back to the infamous email from the late 1990s that promised Bill Gates would give people money for forwarding it.

Both the Gates email and the Facebook privacy hoaxes rely on users not understanding how the services work. "The idea that Bill Gates was actually monitoring every email sent was implausible — but it was just plausible enough to people using email that it still got sent around," he said.

The Facebook privacy or copyright posts may be obvious hoaxes to those who closely watch the tech giant, but they seem possible to some users because of how often the social network has tweaked its privacy policy and user interface, Grimmelmann said. Faced with even the slightest possibility of dire consequences, users may decide its worth 10 seconds to post the messages.

Since people are conditioned to getting at least some of their news through Facebook, why wouldn't they learn about a change to the social network on it first? And even if someone isn't sure where one of these hoaxes started, they may have felt safe assuming it was true if it was promoted by someone they trust online.