Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Citizens of Internetland: we are at war, and the enemy is a virus. Not the kind we’re used to hearing about, one that spreads via suspicious emails and turns our machines into mindless zombies for massive denial of service attacks, but one that is passed by human contact specifically, posts on Facebook and turns us into mindless zombies.

Monday’s outbreak of a fake privacy notice, one that urged users to claim back the copyright on their Facebook posts by making a declaration, was the last straw. Not only because it should have been blindingly obvious that this pseudo-legal babble was nonsense, but because the fake notice had done the rounds once already this year, back in July.

Luckily this one wasn’t a dangerous scam, like the Facebook post that claimed to offer free flights on Southwest but actually spammed your entire friend list, or the offer of a free iPad mini that got you to install a dubious app, or the “you’re tagged in a photo” honey trap. It was more of a chain letter, like the Facebook pricing scam.

Still, this has to stop. We need a centralized system to alert and control these outbreaks before they take over everyone’s Timeline a kind of Centers for Disease Control of the Internet. Until that happens, we all have to take responsibility for prevention and containment. If you’re not involved, if you sit back and let scams spread from Timeline to Timeline, you’re part of the problem. Here’s how the CDC would handle it:

1. Early detection. If something reads like a chain letter, it probably is one. The purpose of a chain letter and the purpose of a virus are one and the same: to propagate itself as widely as possible. Be suspicious, especially of legal wording or conventions you’ve never heard of. Look for typos. Be alert for anything with a bovine whiff.

Snopes is your friend; the site lives to destroy urban legends. Wikipedia is your friend, though you
might want to get a second source. Even Google is your friend, if you’re pushed for time. If your pals put their name to something that mentions the Rome Statute, say, it’s worth taking five seconds to find out what that treaty does (it allows for the prosecution of war crimes).

2. Rapid response. Once you’ve identified a post as fake, or even if you’re not sure about its veracity, get into the comments section every time you see it pop up. Don’t be afraid to show your friend some tough love. If they’re unwittingly helping to spread a scam, they’ll want to know about it, even at the risk of a few blushes.

Remember, your goal is to make their friends think twice about posting it themselves. And if you’re unsure, asking the friend to provide a second source for the information can’t hurt.

3. Sound the alarm. A post of your own, warning friends of the danger, will go a long way towards containment. Enlist them as virus fighters. You are the white blood cells of the Facebook body. It’s up to you. Facebook itself doesn’t have the resources or the inclination to clamp down on scams, untruths or chain letters as fast as you can.

So next time you see a free offer that sounds too good to be true, or your friend posts some legalese that doesn’t sound like them, don’t just roll your eyes. Don’t confine your skepticism to Twitter. You have it in your power to prevent an epidemic. You have, to paraphrase the hapless Todd Akin, ways to shut that whole thing down. Use them.