Samantha was getting tired of the hoaxes on social media. Every day, it seemed, someone posted an alarming warning. She was new to social media and wasn’t sure how long this sort of thing had been going on, but from the start she found it annoying.
The first day that she opened an account, her friend Stacey posted this: “Listen, everyone, this is important. Your account is being hacked by aliens from outer space. They plan to control your mind. In order to retain your independence, you will need to hit Control, Alt, and the number 7. Copy this message, post it to your page, and send a confirmation back to me.”
Samantha looked at Stacey’s post. At first baffled and confused, she at least knew enough to copy the post and insert it into a search engine. Within a second or two, she had her answer: aliens from outer space were not hacking her account. Samantha concluded that she probably had more to worry about from ordinary humans, who could be both nefarious and unpredictable.
Samantha dutifully sent Stacey the proof that her post had been circulating the internet for at least five years, and there was nothing to worry about. Stacey did not reply.
The next day another friend–it was Geoffrey this time–posted a warning: “A famous hospital in Washington, D.C. reports that moths have started biting local residents, resulting in bouts of insanity, bleeding, and sometimes even death. The only known remedy is mothballs. Buy mothballs and spread them around outdoor areas to ward off the murderous moths.”
Samantha stared at Geoffrey’s post. Did he make this up? The whole thing had the smell, the color, the taste, the atmosphere of untruth. Although it was only her second experience with internet hoaxes, Samantha felt duty-bound to stand up for the truth. Again she copied her friend’s post, and again she discovered that it was a hoax. Moths were innocent, had rarely bitten a human being, and had never killed anyone, so far as we can tell. According to her source, it was a mothball manufacturer that had started this theme at least six years ago. Again, in dutiful deference to the truth, she sent Geoffrey the proof that his post was an outright fabrication. Geoffrey did not respond.
Samantha wondered whether exposing internet hoaxes might be a way to lose friends. So far, neither Stacey nor Geoffrey had thanked her for her diligence. Then another crazy post appeared.
This time it was from a high-school classmate named Amaryllis. The new warning was no more odd than the previous ones, but it was certainly odd: “You must say this prayer within the next five minutes. If you do, then good things will happen to you. If you don’t say this prayer within the next five minutes, then bad things will happen to you. You have been forewarned.” There followed a strange prayer to the Spirit of the Spell. Who might that be? And one more time Samantha copied the post and pasted it into a search engine. Sure enough, it was a post that had been circulating for at least two years. She wondered about that five-minute rule. Did the Spirit keep track of all that? Was it five minutes from the time the post was posted, or five minutes from when a reader started reading the thing? Inquiring minds wanted to know but couldn’t find out.
And for the third time, Samantha reported to a social-media friend that their post was in fact a hoax. This time her friend did not ignore Samantha but responded with anger. “Samantha, you always thought you were so smart in high school. But let me tell you that I said the prayer and the Spirit of the Spell gave me good luck. The next day I received a check in the mail for my birthday from Aunt Matilda. How’s that, Miss Smarty-Pants?”
Samantha stared at Amaryllis’s message. Then she had a sort of epiphany. People wanted to believe internet hoaxes. That being true, Samantha would give them one to contemplate.
She wasn’t sure she could come up with anything more imaginative than the murderous moths, but she was certainly going to try. She sat at her computer trying different possibilities. Finally, she had an idea: “Experts at the National Organization for Health and Sanity have warned that believing fake social-media messages is, in fact, deleterious to one’s health. Those who believe fake messages may break out in hives, suffer shortness of breath, and have hallucinations. Other, more rare effects may include megalomania, insomnia, and somnambulism (sleep walking). Participators in social media of any type are urged to copy and paste suspicious messages into a search engine in order to determine if the message is true or, more commonly, a hoax.”
Proud of her new creativity, Samantha posted it on her social-media page and waited for a response. She was particularly interested in the reactions of Stacey, Geoffrey, and Amaryllis. At first nothing happened. Then she noticed that she was no longer a social-media contact with any of them, not Stacey, not Geoffrey, and not her old high-school friend, Amaryllis. Other people she vaguely knew shed themselves of any internet relationship with Samantha. And then she had a call from the National Organization for Health and Sanity asking where she had found such a preposterous claim.
“On the internet, of course,” she lied.