Have you heard? Macaulay Culkin’s dead, for the second time this year. So are Lady Gaga, Usher, Jackie Chan and Chris Brown. I know, because Facebook told me.
Of course, none of these people are actually dead. All have been victims of something enticingly called the “celebrity death hoax”: where a story from a small, little-known website somehow goes viral, convincing millions around the world that their favourite star has died.
Cue “RIP” tweets and statuses, mythbusting stories from real media organisations (or, in Jackie Chan’s case, an Instagram snap of him holding that day’s newspaper), and embarrassed retractions. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, inaccurate or made-up stories have circulated since the media first began. Whoever announced Macaulay Culkin’s death has an ancient kindred spirit in the boy who cried wolf, and a more recent one in Mark Twain, who invented a story about the unearthing of a 100-year old petrified man in his town (they had less celebrities in those days).
But social media has only made the effect of hoax stories worse. Culkin’s death made it onto the “trending” sections of both Twitter and Facebook, which at a glance offer the top stories of the day to those (myself included) who don’t buy papers or tune into hour-long news broadcasts.
The functions these work on have no verification system, and are even predisposed to bumping up hoax stories: the algorithms pick topics based on sudden surges in popularity.If a thousand Beliebers tweet that Lady Gaga’s dead then she is, as far as Twitter's concerned.
People use Twitter and Facebook to share news, too. Again, both sites make no judgement on sources. Twitter shortens links to stories so it’s not clear where they came from; on Facebook, stories are always styled up identically - summary, headline, picture. Neither forefronts a story’s source, or flags up sites that have been reported as unreliable. Facebook timelines and, increasingly, Twitter feeds, bump up the most read and shared stories. Whether they’re true is up to us to find out.
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
Around 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, with the site estimating in September last year that users had so far put up more than 250 billion images. That’s 4,000 photos uploaded every second and around 4 per cent of all photos ever taken, according to a study by Nokia.
Facebook’s logo is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colour blind. “Blue is the richest color for me. I can see all of blue," said Zuckerberg in an interview with the New Yorker. The colour is so popular that Facebook’s campus store even sells nail polish in the exact shade named ‘social butterfly blue’.
Zuckerberg's famously low-key wardrobe (either a grey t-shirt or a hoodie) is so that the CEO saves time deciding what to wear each day. However, Zuckerberg is known to dress up when the occasion demands it. For a 2011 event with Barack Obama he showed up in a suit, with the president introducing himself by saying: “I’m Barack Obama and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie.”
In July 2006 Zuckerberg turned down a $1 billion offer for the site from Yahoo. He was 22 years old at the time and owned 25 per cent of the company. Zuckerberg reportedly turned it down by saying “I don't know what I could do with the money. I'd just start another social networking site. I kind of like the one I already have.” He definitely made the right choice: Facebook is now valued at $135 billion.
A YouGov poll claimed that three-quarter of UK Facebook users' photos showed someone drinking or inebriated. However, the poll did ask users to estimate the number of boozy snaps themselves, and like all things on Facebook, there might have been an element of exaggeration involved.
Facebook operates a bounty hunter program – for bugs. Like many other big technology companies Facebook offers cash rewards to security researchers who point out flaws in the site’s code. The minimum payout is $500 and the largest prize to date has been $33,500.
More than a third of divorce filings in 2011 referenced Facebook, said a survey from UK-based legal firm Divorce Online. The exact figures may be an estimate, but with just under 8 trillion Facebook messages sent in 2013 it’s certain that a substantial body of evidence is to be found on the social network.
Zuckerberg isn’t much of a Twitter fan. Despite having nearly three hundred thousand followers on the service he’s only tweeted 19 times - once in 2012 and the rest in 2009. Although Facebook dwarfs twitter in terms of active users (1 billion compared with 200 million by some accounts) the micro-blogging site handles breaking news better. Facebook has introduced trending topics and hashtags to counter this.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 Iceland decided to rewrite their constitution using Facebook to solicit suggestions from citizens. Unfortunately, despite this forward thinking approach, the document was killed by politicians in mid-2013 for various (mostly technical) reasons.
You can browse Facebook upside down. Facebook currently supports more than 70 different languages – including English (Pirate) and English (Upside Down). Check the bottom of the column on the right of your newsfeed and click your current language to change!
The lack of verification does these sites’ users a disservice. One of social media’s greatest strengths is its ability to spread information quickly, and we’re arguably better informed about world events than we ever have been before. But it would be nice to know that the “news” we’re reading wasn’t cooked up by a bored teenager with a blog and the ability to make up police quotes.
In August, Facebook test-ran a feature that marked out links from satire sites so people didn’t take these stories seriously. The site also employs moderators responsible for deleting offensive posts, who eventually pulled down Culkin's memorial Facebook group. These are steps in the right direction, but so much more can be done.
Social media is, increasingly, a shopfront for the media as a whole - it’s time it introduced quality control.Reuse content