A few days ago status updates like this were doing the rounds on Facebook:
“Change your facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday (December 6), there should be no human faces on facebook, but a stash of memories. This is for eliminating violence against children.”
Of course it is. Or maybe not. Today, the rumour changed poles:
“This cartoon thing has been set up by paedos using A registered charities name to entice kids. apparently on the 6th dec you will be kicked off fb if u have cartoon pics. The more folk that… put up cartoon pics the harder it is fo…r the police to catch these sickos!!”
There doesn’t appear to be any truth in the latter rumour. Internet hoax library Snopes has a similar hoax listed, and this seems to be variant of it. ThatsNonsense.com also covers the hoax.
SEO as a public service
Hoax updates do the rounds on social networks and text messages on a semi-regular basis. Remember the one about children being kidnapped in supermarket toilets? Or how about police banning English flags in pubs for fear of offending people?
In both cases the mainstream media was slow to react to the rumours. A Google search – which would be a typical reaction of anyone receiving such a message – would bring up nothing to counter those rumours. (Notably, perhaps because of its public and real-time nature, Twitter seems better at quashing hoaxes).
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is much derided for a perception that it leads news organisations to write for machines, or to aim for the lowest common denominator. But SEO has a very valuable role in serving the public: if searches on a particular rumour shoot up, or mentions of it increase on social networks, it’s worth verifying and getting up the facts quickly.
This is another reason why journalists should be on social networks, and why publishers should be monitoring them more broadly. Whether your motivations are civic, or commercial, it makes sense both ways.
Of course, on the other hand you could always recycle urban myths about councils banning Christmas…
PS: If you need any tips on methods and tools, see my Delicious bookmarks for verification.