Rhodri Marsden: Don't get stung by the big story scams

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The Independent Tech

Anyone who relishes keeping up to date with the news will have found the last few weeks exhausting. Just when you thought there couldn't be any more news, more news promptly turned up. And as it did so, we scrambled for the remote, refreshed the pages, or dived into the frenzy of misinformed speculation on Twitter.

Our appetite for printed news media is often queried, but we're ravenous for news itself. We devour any links that promise new information; social media companies know this, the traditional news organisations know it too, and scammers and fraudsters thrive on it.

The events of last weekend ended up prompting furious rants from those who questioned how anyone could be more interested in the death of Amy Winehouse than 68 people being shot dead in Norway, but frankly, we're interested in both. And scammers were quick to leap into action.

They published links that supposedly featured footage of Winehouse smoking crack just before her death, and as they become more desperate for traffic, fake links to footage of her death itself. (Which, one presumes, Winehouse had thoughtfully captured and uploaded.) Alongside these links were others that promised CCTV footage of the Oslo bomb blasts.

None of this stuff existed, and if anyone had thought for a few seconds they'd have realised as much. But they didn't. Post-News of the World there's been a debate over the kind of news that the public wants, but it's telling that the scammers chose not to entice us with "level-headed analysis of developments". They know that sensationalism is bankable, and sure enough, the links went viral.

I hate to pass judgment, but if you made the decision to view a video of "Amy's final minutes", and were confronted with a screen asking whether, before you viewed it, you'd like to win a Nintendo DS, and you thought yes, that would be great, and clicked OK, you should spend some contemplative time alone before re-engaging with society. This was the mechanism by which the link spread on Facebook, with evidence of people's ghoulish stupidity scattered around for all their friends to see. And with each repost, a few pence trickled into the coffers of some marketing company. Lovely.

Profiting from death is commonplace, of course; Microsoft's UK PR outfit were encouraging us to "remember Amy" by downloading Back To Black (it later apologised). But while the clickjacking scammers have been described as "gluttonous vultures", we're equally culpable.

We follow links to uncensored video (that doesn't exist) of Bin Laden being shot, or shocking photos (that don't exist) of an England footballer caught with an underage prostitute. While most social engineering techniques exploit our gullibility, this exploits our repulsively voyeuristic nature, and to say that no one emerges with any credit is a laughable understatement.


Another story causing apoplexy is that of the deaths at Stepping Hill hospital. Even before Rebecca Leighton was charged, Facebook posts were calling for her public evisceration on the basis that if she hadn't done anything, she wouldn't have been arrested in the first place. While these people demolish the notion of presumption of innocence, coverage of Leighton herself has also been driven by Facebook. Having left the security of her account open, people were able to see everything about her life.

It demonstrates perfectly the perils of an open Facebook; in the same way that people joke about wearing clean underwear in case they're run over, maybe you should lock down your Facebook profile in case you're arrested. Because it won't necessarily be the benign personal information or the attractive holiday photos that end up in the world's media.