On Saturday, millions of internet users spent the day mourning the death of Macaulay Culkin. He wasn't actually dead, but that was a minor detail in the story, which spread across the internet like all too many other stupid hoaxes that spread across the internet every day.
The fake story reporting Culkin's death was tweeted 23,000 times, and shared more than five million times on Facebook. By the time Culkin responded, the story had already picked up too much steam for anyone to stop it — including Culkin.
Where did a hoax so unstoppable come from? A Facebook memorial page and a poorly written, six-paragraph story from "msnbc.website," which doesn't even bother to resemble an actual MSNBC page. The Culkin case was hardly an abberation. This is the kind of thing that happens with distressing frequency, from the "death" of Breakfast Club star Judd Nelson to the "arrest" of graffiti artist Banksy.
The internet keeps playing the same tricks, and we keep refusing to learn how to spot them. It's never been easier to throw together a halfway-convincing story and make it go viral — and since the perpetrators of these annoying hoaxes have no reason to stop, it's up to readers to develop a keener sense of whether a story is actually true before they share it. Fortunately, that's a pretty easy thing to do. Here are four simple steps you can start following right now:
1. Check for additional sources before you share anything
The death of a celebrity like Macaulay Culkin at any age — let alone at age 34, with absolutely no warning — would be major national news. But anyone who bothered to search for his name after seeing the original "death" story would have discovered that the news of his death hadn't been reported anywhere else. By Sunday, the only stories about Culkin would be the ones debunking the reports of his death.
A Google search is usually enough to determine the veracity of a story. But before you share anything even a little dubious, it is always worth checking Snopes.com — an independent website that has spent more than 20 years fact-checking every rumor that comes across its desk. Snopes is as efficient as it is accurate; they debunked the Macauley Culkin death rumor the day it went viral. Here's their "What's New" page, which gives you a feed of the most recent stories they've tackled.
2. Learn which websites not to trust
These are a few of the bogus websites you should never trust:
- Empire News
- The National Report
- Daily Currant
- Free Wood Post
While posts from The Onion and Clickhole are occasionally mistaken for legitimate news, their primary goal is genuine satire, not trickery — and by and large, they're pretty great at it. That's not the case with these lesser rip-offs, which use the paper shield of "satire" to justify the real reason they exist: tricking people into sharing fake stories they believe are genuine.
Many of these posts go viral because they play on the fears, biases, and stereotypes of politically polarized readers both conservative ("Congress Approves Bill That Will Offer Free Automobiles To Welfare Recipients") and liberal ("Mitt Romney: I Can Relate To Black People, My Ancestors Once Owned Slaves"). Other popular variations traffic in hopes ("Vince Gilligan Announces Breaking Bad Season 6") and fears ("Meteorologists Predict Record-Shattering Snowfall Coming Soon"). They're all fake.
3. Unfollow any website that lies to you
So you're scrolling through your Facebook news feed, and you discover that one of your friends has shared a hoax link from one of those annoying websites. What should you do?
On the top-right corner of any post in your Facebook news feed, you'll see an arrow. Click on the arrow and select "Hide all from [insert name of terrible lying website]." No matter how many shares they get from your gullible friends, you'll never see a story from the offending site again.
4. Use common sense
These hoaxes exist because click-trolling people write them — but they thrive because thousands of people thoughtlessly share them. Would Buzz Aldrin actually tweet that the moon landing was faked on a soundstage? Would casino owners actually try to legalize dog-fighting? Would the Kansas City Royals tap George Zimmerman to throw out the first pitch at the World Series?
Whether or not you have time to carry out the proper due diligence, these stories — and many stories that seem shocking or flattering to a specific political perspective or worldview — are designed to manipulate you into thoughtlessly sharing them.
Remember: Sharing something is the equivalent of a personal endorsement. It's an implicit guarantee from you that a story is genuine, and that reading it is a valuable use of your friends' and followers' time. Take 30 seconds to determine whether something is real before you blast it out to hundreds of people. We'll all have a better internet for it.