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The Nigerian prince isn’t the only online hoax

Thu, 12/05/2013 - 4:29pm
Allegra Sparta, Editorial Intern

Ben Franklin once said “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” That’s doubly so for the World Wide Web, the breeding ground for Nigerian princes, get-rich-quick schemes, and all manner of hoaxes.

No one likes to be scammed. Whether a hacker steals all of your personal information or you just wind up feeling a bit silly, it never ends well. Ever since the dawn of email, our inboxes have become cluttered with links to outlandish news pieces or videos, ads, and solicitation. Don’t believe everything you see or read.

This viral phenomenon is primarily seen and discussed on the internet. We don’t really hear about a viral phone call or a viral television commercial, and when we do, they’ve been uploaded online. Online content is much easier to share, and the process goes a lot quicker than older forms of communication. We’ve all joked about the old standby internet scam of the Nigerian prince that desperately needs your help. People can joke about it now because it just seems so implausible, so unrealistic to us today.

So why are we so quick to believe whatever viral video or story that finds its way into our inboxes when we appear to be so internet-savvy? The answer lies in a simple formula. Start with the internet, then add in millions of bored users. This creates the ideal conditions for companies to snag the ad-space associated with these popular items. Viral entertainment has become a business in itself and will continue to flourish as long as a captivated audience remains. Simply put, more views usually means more money for those involved, even if they fabricate content. People are drawn to simple and quick videos and pictures, and advertisers take full advantage of this fact.

It’s gotten to the point where viral items don’t need to be an outright scam to make money; they just need to earn a ton of page views to get that ad revenue. This makes them slightly more ethical than actual scams, but we still feel hoodwinked when we find out a video or picture wasn’t true. For example, the story regarding the homophobic comment in lieu of a tip at a New Jersey restaurant was proven false. The family actually left the waitress a very nice tip and had the credit card statement to back it up. This story had all the aspects of a successful and believable tidbit of news. People leave inadequate tips almost as often as they provide unsolicited criticism of others. LGBT activists and the general populace, myself included, were angered by what appeared to be a true story. Although we were fooled, it’s a bit of consolation to know that no one actually mistreated this woman.

Stories like the lying waitress show an unsettling trend in online news. Nowadays, it’s easy to decide that maybe a foreign prince doesn’t really need access to our bank accounts, but how can we tell which seemingly innocuous news pieces are flat-out lies? Most of us are constantly connected to everything via the internet, smartphone, or other mobile device. Because of this, it’s become standard practice to just be skeptical of most of the information we are inundated with, until it can be confirmed by legitimate news sources. So is every “fluff” piece doomed to be considered fiction, or will the slighted waitresses of today become tomorrow’s Nigerian princes?

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