Harmless viral Facebook post is another reminder how easy it is to make online fakes
Ease of spreading misinformation leaves users to sort out what's real and what's not
At first glance it looked like your typical viral Facebook post. There was the small boy, posing for what appeared to be his school's photo day — his face contorted in raw anger, directed straight to the camera. A man claiming to be the boy's dad offered some context: He said he ate his son's Pop Tart before the photos were taken, and his furious son swore never to smile again.
It was the sort of mildly funny, saccharine post that's easy catnip on the internet — and by Tuesday morning, it had racked up 300,000 shares on Facebook, three days after it was first posted.
But almost immediately, it became clear that not everything was as it appeared. Commenters turned on the poster, claiming the child wasn't actually his. Elsewhere on Facebook, the boy's actual mom posted a message calling out the viral poster for trying to pass off her son as his own. Unsurprisingly, her post garnered far fewer shares than the one that went viral in the first place.
The whole saga, brief as it was, is a good reminder of how easy it has become online to pass misinformation off as authentic — both how social media platforms continue to help amplify false posts and misinformation, and how the onus has largely shifted, unfairly or not, onto users to sort out what's real and what's not.
Some of this can be blamed on the design of social platforms themselves. Facebook in particular operates on the premise that everyone is playing by the same rules and presenting their most authentic selves. But in practice, this positioning has just made it harder to distinguish the people and pages who are truly authentic versus those just pretending.
Put another way, when something becomes popular on Facebook, the majority of users tend to believe, in good faith, that the person posting it is doing so authentically — because that's what Facebook has taught us to expect. If you've ever wondered why Facebook is so keen on referring to misinformation and foreign influence operations using the clunky phrase "inauthentic behaviour," this is it.
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You can see this tension at play elsewhere across Facebook and beyond. There are entire communities of people on Instagram, for example, that pretend to pass off other people's children as their own. What some have called "digital kidnapping" is basically a form of online roleplay. Users pretend to be parents of the children whose photos they've stolen from other accounts, while others pretend to be the children themselves. Were it not for the roleplay-related hashtags identifying the accounts as such, it would be easy, at a glance, not to realize the photos had been taken from somewhere else.
In the bigger picture it's why — for all of the hand-wringing about deep fakes and artificially created images, voices, and videos — real media that has merely been misrepresented or distorted is arguably just as much of a threat — if not a more realistic one. It's why Russian influence operations on Facebook and Twitter have more recently found success by pushing legitimate partisan causes, rather than outright fake news.
It's why it's harder than ever to take the things we see online at face value now (though it's debatable whether we ever should have in the first place). It's also a reminder of how the onus has shifted on consumers to think more critically about what they engage with online — a feat that becomes harder and harder as convincing fakes and misinformation become easier to pull off. As a result, even innocuous viral Facebook posts are a reminder of how easy it has become to game the system, making it harder to know who to trust.
It might not be such a big deal when you're dealing with a harmless meme, but when the same tactics can be applied to foreign-backed misinformation campaigns intent on disrupting democracy and sowing division, the stakes are high.