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How to Spot Viral Hoaxes

Anatomy of a Viral Hoax

Anatomy of a Viral Hoax

What is real and what is fake? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate fantasy from reality online. By now, you’ve probably already run into your fair share of viral hoaxes. Scams, conspiracy theories and fake news spread like wildfire in the modern digital landscape. Real people often fall victim to these hoaxes and unknowingly spread false information, making it even harder to discern reality. How can you tell if you’re being baited? Check for these red flags before hitting “share” on Facebook.


An Unknown Name

Information is more accessible than ever before. But don’t trust a news story just because they have a legitimate-sounding name or a click-worthy headline. How can you spot fake news? Viral hoaxes often come from what look like real news organizations. When you take a closer look, however, these fake news stories stem from publications that are far from legitimate. Unfortunately, people spend more time looking at the clickbaity headline and the eye-popping hoax than the source of information. If you’re unsure of the source, check to see if the story is being shared in mainstream media. You can also fact-check the story using third-party sites like Snopes and Politifact.

Imitating Domains

Word to the wise: be careful where you click. Scammers are craftier than ever when it comes to their deceitful tactics. One common strategy is to closely mimic domains from mainstream media publications. The URLs might even closely match those from trustworthy sites. That’s why you’ll find sites like or The scammers use extra words and misspellings to hoax their victims. The end of the domain is equally as important, as spam operations will use things like .gq or .work instead of .com. You can do a domain name search using to verify a site’s legitimacy. It’ll give you useful information about the registered domain holder and the site registration date.

Urging Action

Have you ever logged onto Facebook only to discover that your account has been hacked? That’s what happened to a big chunk of Facebook users during the fall of 2018. The only problem? They weren’t actually hacked. The hoax led people to send private messages to their friends to warn them about the hack. Viral hoaxes typically involve some sort of action for the reader, from forwarding the story to providing personal data. You may be wiser than to share your credit card or social security number, but anything asking you to forward information should be a major red flag. Even if it’s a simple request like “please share.”

Recycled Photos

Haven’t I seen this picture before? Picture reuse is one of the most popular and successful online hoaxes. It makes sense when you consider how easy it is to manipulate readers through out-of-context imagery. During the 2018 midterm elections, an image went viral of a Trump supporter that was beaten by left-wing activists. A quick Google Reverse Image Search revealed that the victim was actually an actress on the set of her TV series. Viral hoaxes often use powerful, recycled images thanks to their ability to capture people’s attention and incite strong emotions.

Suspicious Timing

Timing is everything. At least, that’s frequently the case with viral hoaxes. Nowadays, viral hoaxes seem like a constant threat, but they are especially dangerous during major scandals and newsworthy moments. That viral Facebook hoax? It came at a time when people were wary of their data being compromised. In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, stories recirculated about rigged voting machines (despite being repeatedly debunked.) These messages and stories tend to go viral at the most convenient times, whether it’s a major data breach or an upcoming election.

Emotional Response

Have you ever read a story that enraged you? What about that made you feel scared or threatened? Let’s face it: that encapsulates about 90 percent of news stories in a given week. Still, there are reasons to be cautious of stories that elicit strong emotional responses. Hoaxes are intentionally misleading and play off of our innermost desires and fears. Maybe a hoax is designed to make you further fear giving your data to Big Brother. Maybe it’s designed to make you further dislike a political candidate or organization. At any rate, these hoaxes tap into our emotions and often leave our judgment cloudy. Viral hoaxes can play into your fears or good old fashioned confirmation bias. Check your emotions at the door and it’ll be much easier to spot what’s real and what’s fake.

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