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What Is Lost in Our Age of Social Media Hoaxes?

Wow, did you see the horrific Pace Salsa social media meltdown last weekend? As we now know, it was a hoax.

Or maybe last weekend you cheered on Elan Gale as he gave an arrogant airline passenger her comeuppance. That was a hoax, too.

Or maybe your friends tweeted and retweeted that amazing photo of a python that ingested the guy unlucky enough to fall asleep near the snake. Yep, another hoax.

We are awash in hoaxes. Perhaps that is nothing new, but nowadays the spread of hoaxes has been supercharged by the network power of social media. What used to be a rumor spread from one individual to the next in the physical world can today reach the world's online population in seven degrees of social networking separation.

Sometimes the hoaxes passed around social media are just for laughs; other times, they are cruel and dangerous. In the wake of actor Paul Walker's death, some fans "liked" a Facebook page started by the star's daughter, Meadow Walker, which, inevitably, was revealed to be fake. And yesterday, a Kentucky high school emptied over fake threats shared through social media.

Some brands have gotten into the hoax game, mistaking a momentary bump in retweets for some sort of deeper brand benefit. Chipotle, a brand that otherwise strives for meaningful social engagement about the quality of food, for some reason thought it would a good idea to fake a social media account hack. The stunt worked to elevate word of mouth briefly, but how does it help a brand dedicated to improving the authenticity of food to be so inauthentic in social media?

ImageNot to be left out, traditional media has been sucked into the game of hype and hoax. As social media enables information to spread faster--regardless of whether it is true or verified--even "respectable" news outlets get caught as they attempt to out-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed. Two weeks ago, Time Magazine's web site featured an article about a guy who drives his pet bear around in a Lamborghini, but the photo, the article and everything else was simply another Reddit hoax. Of course, sometimes the news media's rush to match the speed of Internet rumor has more concerning ramifications, such as when innocent people were mistakenly identified as the Boston Marathon bombers.

My question is what all this means to communication in the social and mobile era. If consumers continue to gravitate to the sensational, web sites chase after attention and traffic as quickly as possible, and no on seems bothered by whether the most widely-shared information is even true or not, what suffers?

One casualty may be trust. If our world remains awash with news and information that is false, who do we trust? Our friends and social networks that spread the hoaxes? The news media that aids and abets the broadcast of misinformation? Should I give money to the young woman dying of cancer or try to win one of the 400 PlayStation 4s being given away on Facebook? Of course not--they're both hoaxes!

Remember when we use to speak of the importance of "authenticity" in the social era? Have we lost something in our rush for instant gratification, be it entertainment and distraction for the masses or traffic and attention for brands and media? And if something important is being lost, what is the solution? How should we teach students to read the content that comes to their inboxes and onto their social media without being bamboozled

Or, am I just an old fuddy-duddy worrying about truth in a world more interested in mourning Eddie Murphy. (Yes, that's yet another Twitter-fueled hoax.)

I'd appreciate your input in the comments below or on Twitter where I am @augieray.

Join The Conversation

  • AugieRay1's picture
    Dec 4 Posted 3 years ago AugieRay1

    "I will always argue that there is absolutely zero business benefit of a customer knowing that a brand, product or business exists if they feel negatively towards it and as such will spread negative sentiment and never convert into a customer."

    Shell, I have said the same thing for years (predating the whole social thing, actually.)  I just don't get marketers that value either mere impressions (Any impression counts, no matter how meaningless!) or volatility (Today we'll get a million impressions from our post but tomorrow we'll be back to eight engagements!)  

    Thanks for the comment!

  • AugieRay1's picture
    Dec 4 Posted 3 years ago AugieRay1

    Mary, write that post I did feel like an "old fuddy-duddy."  (Then I went back to Snapchating and playing Assassin's Creed IV , just to reclaim my immaturity.)  :)

    I agree that brands are taking silly risks with hoaxes. I think if we had smarter marketing and social media pros, they'd realize that slow and steady wins the race--"fresh and valuable discussions," as you say!

  • Dec 4 Posted 3 years ago MaryLiebowitz (not verified)

    I don't know if I'd embrace "old fuddy-duddy" :) - I still believe transparency and honesty is a company's best approach in engagement. Whether or not we're able to see the humor in a spoof event, "hoax" just doesn't resonate well with everyone, and I'm not comfortable opening an audience up to potentially feeling duped.

    I think the backlash can be too polarizing within a customer base, and I'd rather just stick to creating fresh and valuable discussions that tie directly to my brand.

  • ubersocialmedia's picture
    Dec 4 Posted 3 years ago ubersocialmedia

    Great article Augie, i've been pondering the same since reading about the Elan Gale hoax and reading Amazons ridiculous drone PR stunt.

    For me, hoaxes and PR stunts largely, don't entertain me and they fall under the same category. Lies. Both hoaxes and PR stunts are essentially lies, spread in an attempt to get attention.

    Doing this sort of thing massively undermines the credibility of the source and reduces trust in the platforms used to seed those lies. Sadly, when it comes to social media, due to non-existent barriers to entry, hoaxes are easier than ever to publish, seed and to make viral.

    I find it really sad that individuals and corporations feel they need to stoop to such levels. I don't find hoaxes or PR stunts big or clever, I regard them as lies spread maliciously in order to dupe people. That is not a sound basis for any communication strategy, however short term. When I fall for a hoax, that doesn't promote positive sentiment in me, it makes me angry and I feel negatively towards the source of the hoax.

    This doesn't mean I don't have a sense of humour - obvious spoofs designed to be so absurd they can't possibly be real DO grab my attention and entertain me (take for example Waterstone's brilliant come back to the whole Amazon Drone thing).

    I will always argue that there is absolutely zero business benefit of a customer knowing that a brand, product or business exists if they feel negatively towards it and as such will spread negative sentiment and never convert into a customer. To me that is just dumb and the total opposite effective marketing.

    So, i'm totally with you!

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