As more and more people find their way onto sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the inherent vulnerabilities of the “human condition” are carried onto these networks as well. My fine young readers, what I will be explaining to you in this article is something that has been happening since the early days of electronic mail, and even earlier in the form of faxes and mass-mailings. In our current day and age, it’s called the “share hoax.”
Please allow me to first explain the reason behind writing this most important of articles; I’m concerned. I’m troubled by the implications to the very websites that we rely on to stay in touch with our friends around the world. It’s not that I’m angry with the people who are unwittingly creating these vulnerabilities…I’m not. I just wish that more people would pay a bit of attention to what they are doing online, instead of simply engaging in emotional, “knee-jerk” reactions. But I digress, on to the “meat and potatoes” of the matter.
Earlier today, I noticed a picture appear in my Facebook “news feed.” The picture, one of a scarred and abused puppy, was accompanied by a message that for every “share” of the picture, a dollar would be donated by the Humane Society to pay for this poor puppy’s care. Now, I tend to be a more logical than emotional thinker, so this immediately set off my “BS alert.” Aside from already knowing that the Humane Society does not do things like this through Facebook, I decided to do a bit of “on-the-fly” datamining. I popped open another browser tab, and googled the term “a dollar donated humane society,” looking for any Snopes articles in the results. Sure enough!(1)
This is just the latest permutation of the share hoax. Others have included stories such as that of the fictitious “Amy Bruce,” a 7-year-old dying of lung cancer,(2) and another of a baby dying of facial cancer.(3) In each of these cases, the accompanying text states that some charitable entity will donate a specific sum for every share of the picture.
Ladies and gentlemen, these hoaxes are specifically designed to play on the emotions of the user. The perpetrators behind these hoaxes, either instinctively or logically, know that the best way to get you to do something that they want you to do, is to give those ol’ heartstrings a tug. In addition to this, these hoaxes also take advantage of the user’s unawareness of how the charities or businesses mentioned actually work.
“And don’t just follow your heart, man; ’cause your heart can be deceived. But you gotta lead your heart.”
(from the 2008 film, “Fireproof.”)
Now, I’m not saying that emotion and compassion are bad things. Actually, the world could do with a lot more compassion! What I’m saying is that people need to pay a bit more attention and be a little more cautious, especially when they’re online. Don’t just take the ability to share that photo or link for granted, because you may just be unwittingly helping to take down the very website you’re using!
Internet hacker group Anonymous has been successful in breaching sites belonging to federal agencies, law enforcement unions and other public and private concerns. In January of this year, a video surfaced on the internet in which the creator, claiming to represent Anonymous, stated that the group would seek to shut down Facebook.(4) One has to ask themselves, how Anonymous would be capable of doing this. As any good tactician will tell you, before mounting any kind of active attack on a target, the would-be attacker first engages in passive measures designed to figure out the target’s weaknesses.
If I were a hacker bent on taking down Facebook, I would definitely use human vulnerabilities to help me do it. Why work hard, when you can work smart, while using others to further your objectives? How would I put this plan into action? I would use a “share hoax” to track how “ripe” a network is for the spread of a more malicious piece of code. If several thousand people are “wearing their heart on their Facebook wall,” I now know that I can attach a tiny bit of virus code to a picture or link of a poor puppy or baby, state that it / he / she is suffering, and tug on the user’s heartstrings to get them to spread it around for me. From that point, success is pretty much fait accompli.
What I’m getting at here, is for the users of online services such as Facebook and others, to be a bit more prudent in their use of these services. Right now, Facebook is free. If Zuckerberg, et. al. have to start taking drastic measures to ensure that their sites stay up and protected from these attacks however, then look for that to change, and rightly so.