You know what else goes viral? Viruses

July 24, 2018

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


There’s an unfortunate irony in writing a blog one hopes may be shared on social media... whose very subject is the dangers of sharing things on social media.


I thought we were getting smarter. Over the past 24 months my Facebook feed has featured fewer and fewer of the sort of posts I’d categorise as either moral panic (classic example: Talking Angela) or too-good-to-be-true (because-it-isn’t) free stuff (classic example: I can’t believe I got a free iPhone – this really works!). Then again, I’ve become a tad less tolerant since July 2016 and have unfollowed a number of contacts (almost all well-meaning) who share to an almost pathological extent what I can best describe as “time-wasting/exasperating/misleading tosh”.


While my Facebook feed has got smarter, though, it seems my WhatsApp has begun to lose its mind. WhatsApp is an undeniably useful free-to-download app for keeping in touch, offering us a side-step around cellular providers’ SMS and calling costs (all communication takes place online, so the only cost is in data, whether via a 4G or a Wifi connection). In the past few weeks I’ve received numerous messages from well-intentioned and otherwise perfectly sane people in my network sharing “important” revelations that five minutes’ research (or less) could demonstrate to be bogus. Here are a few:


Boycott Big Petrol!


Feel free to skip past the following image; I certainly shan't blame you.


TL/DR: it claims that a former Coca-Cola exec named Phillip Holdsworth recommends boycotting a particular brand of petrol in order to push its prices down, thus forcing competition among providers and dismantling the monopoly of “Big Petrol” through mass economic action. It then advises sharing the message with 20 contacts, who will share it with 20 contacts, who will share… you catch the drift.


If you had sufficient patience to read the above screed in its poorly-stitched-together (forgive me – I’m not an “images person”) entirety, well done. (Also: WHY?)


Even leaving aside the shoddy maths:


  • multiple people will receive the message multiple times and instantly block you, your number and any belief they may have had that you are not a thoroughgoing idiot;

  • there are nowhere near 12.8 billion people in the world;

  • only a percentage of the global population will be over the age of five/own cell phones/buy petrol; etc)... 


... and the fact that, while this message starts out purporting to be South African in origin (“R8.00 PER LITRE”) it soon becomes clear it’s aimed at American audiences:


  • “pocketbook”

  • “$1.50 RANGE”...


... anyone with access to Google can easily fact-check the details in minutes.


First, anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the South African petrol market knows that here the price of petrol is set and regulated by the government (and has been since 1977), so boycotting one or another of the chains will have no effect whatsoever on the national petrol price.


Second, as Snopes points out, even in America (or the UK, or wherever), where oil companies are free to set their own prices, such action would likely have the opposite of the desired effect, in fact driving prices up, not down.


Third, and most easily fact-checked, a basic Google search immediately reveals that there has never been a Coca Cola executive named Phillip Holdsworth, Philip Hollsworth, Philatelist Holdingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-von-knackerthrasher-applebanger or anything remotely similar.


Company X is giving Y away to celebrate its Zth birthday!


These are often the most tempting to share. On the very slim off-chance one could receive thousands of rands of groceries, free flights or even a free car, we share these messages against our better judgement. 


Here are just a few examples:


1. Pick n Pay



Before we go any further, look carefully at the above, then Google “Pick n Pay”. Go ahead, I’ll wait.


Notice the top result? You’ll see the short website url for the grocery giant is "". Not "". The regular url is "" – scroll down a little, and you’ll see a variety of urls, all of them starting "". If all of Pick n Pay’s urls start with "", it’s highly unlikely they’d launch a promotion whose url begins with something different.


If the above seems too technical, try this: before passing the above message on to everyone in your address book, ask yourself:


Could Pick n Pay afford to give every customer a R4,000 gift voucher?


If your answer is, “Sure, Raymond Ackerman is made of money,” ask yourself:


How likely is it that Pick n Pay would give every customer a R4,000 gift voucher?


If your answer is, “Sure, Raymond Ackerman seems like a nice dude,” find a responsible adult and ask them to take your phone away from you.


If you still think it might be true, ask the person who sent you the message if they really received the gift voucher mentioned in their message. If they respond, “No, but I’m sure it’s legit/I know someone whose aunt got one,” gently advise them they may have fallen for a scam. If they say, “Yes! I just got all my kid’s school supplies for next term!”, either they are lying or their phone has been hacked. Find a responsible adult and ask them to take your friend’s phone away from them.


Or just Google "Pick n Pay scam".


2. Volkswagen



We all read about the Volkswagen emissions scandal back in 2015, right? Or at least heard something about it?


So it makes sense the company could use some positive PR. And that they might give away 50 free cars to achieve it. But two and a half years after the scandal?


Look closely at the url in the message above… looks legit, right?


How about now?


And now?


Again, one could simply have Googled “Volkswagen” and instantly discovered that their url in South Africa is, in fact, "" ("" internationally). But while “” looks reassuringly lifelike, note the little dot under the A. That’s not an A – it’s a special character, and these are often used in dummy urls.


3. Mango


Here’s one purporting to be from Mango, SAA’s low-cost airline:



And if we look a little bit closer:




See it?


Clicking on those links can have a variety of implications: they may simply not work, which is the best-case scenario. They may take you to a page that looks convincingly like one maintained by Pick n Pay, or VW, or Mango, where you may be asked to enter your personal information (or, most worryingly, banking or other confidential details – never, ever do this. I implore you). They may trigger a download of malware to your device leading to stolen data, ransomware or outright bricking of your phone.


There are other ways to fact-check. A visit to Mango’s Wikipedia page, for example, shows that the company was founded in 2006, and thus was only approaching 12 years in business when the WhatsApp message about their 15th birthday did the rounds in May of 2018.


Most often the best way to be sure, even if the url and offer look legitimate, is to ask the company directly. Believe it or not, sometimes Twitter can be your friend. Sign up for a free account (you can do this perfectly anonymously) and tweet @ the corporate or customer service account:



There. Sorted.


A teacher/government worker/foreigner did something heinous and this must go viral to shame them/get them fired


These can be the most insidious and dangerous messages of all.



The above message seems, at a skim, to suggest that the video is of a teacher at a school in Pretoria beating his charges, although on closer reading it becomes clear “Valsad's RM VM School” is purported to be the scene of the crime. It also appeals to our better nature: what monster doesn't want to help children in peril? Have we no "mercy"?


It’s a copy-paste (and minor edit, to include a reference to Pretoria) of a viral video that did the rounds in India, where it was claimed the man in question was a teacher at the RM VM School at Valsad in Gujarat.


BUT! In truth, the footage is from an orphanage in Egypt, and while it is indeed disturbing and should be brought to attention, sharing it without the facts can have dire, even fatal consequences.


India in particular has seen a spate of lynchings in the past year as a result of damning fake viral messages, mostly laying blame on “strangers” for unconfirmed child trafficking. A message goes out on WhatsApp, shared by a “reliable source” (usually a well-meaning contact who has fallen for the hoax and passed the message on), warning that children have been snatched from a nearby area by people who look, to borrow a particularly British phrase, “a bit foreign”. Images of dead children (usually originating in news reports from Syria or Myanmar), or videos like the one in the message above, are included to give credence to the claims.


The message spreads, locals are on high alert, strangers are spotted by an angry mob…


The lynchings have not been confined to rural areas, as some might imagine – the major city of Hyderabad, population 6.7 million, saw five people murdered this May on the basis of rumours.


And India is not alone in experiencing the spread of dangerous or misleading information: in Brazil a viral WhatsApp anti-vaccination campaign has been linked to a yellow fever outbreak; in Kenya political misinformation was widely shared ahead of recent elections; and in the UK the (rather less perilous but nonetheless fake) news that David and Victoria Beckham intended divorcing did the rounds not long ago.


How to counter it


All these types of viral messages present risks, of very different types. The tips above may be of use (Google, Google and Google some more; tweet corporations ostensibly making offers too good to be true), but always ask yourself two very important questions:


  1. I may trust the person who sent me this message, but do I know who sent it to them? Do I know the person who crafted this message to be trustworthy, and can I think of any ulterior motive for their writing it? (Might this unknown person work for a rival of BP, for example, and want to damage the brand? Might there be a reason for sowing xenophobic discord within the community? Might this simply be mischief?)

  2. If I pass this on, can I vouch that everyone who receives it will react responsibly? Sure, my network doesn’t contain any gullible but well-meaning individuals/racists/torch-and-pitchfork wielding hotheads… but what about the network of everyone I forward it to? How about the networks of those they share it with? Can I be sure?

While searchable sites like Politifact,,, Sophos and others are fighting the good fight internationally (and they’re useful resources for any idiocy that may also have done the rounds overseas, like the petrol boycott), we on the African continent are woefully under-resourced in terms of fact-checking organisations.


While does sterling work, it hasn’t the funds or the staff to keep as current as its international counterparts – never mind keep up with the flood of misinformation out there.


You may want to consider donating here. But always, always check and consider before sharing.



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