The usage of social media as a source of news is a common habit in the current consumption of online platforms. Yet, users not only use them as a place to search information and remain updated, in fact they also trust them enough to form their opinion and base decisions solely on the content they provide. The way social media exploits these features and habits in users is a topic deeply tied to the ongoing controversy around fake news, echo chambers, and information bubbles. Every day, cases of misinformation or wrongly induced influence by social media pops up in headlines or features public debate. A recent case of fraudulent business activities in social media has brought up to the spotlight user’s vulnerability and once again questions the credibility of the platforms. The scandal has had such magnitude that it has required governmental agencies to step in to detain it.
This past December the American Security Exchange Commission (SEC) denounced through a publication on its newsroom a scam performed by eight individuals on Twitter and Discord chatrooms. The fraud went up to an astonishing one-hundred-million dollar hoax. The scammers made themselves look like experienced and successful traders, who recommended their followers how and when to buy certain stocks. Once the price of those stocks rose, the traders sold their shares without telling their followers or making public their decision, a kind of scheme known as “pump & dump”. Because of their fake expertise they easily built a substantial follower base on Twitter and Discord, which make their accounts more believable. Naturally, because of their untruthful advice and a “professional” appearance on their accounts, novice investors saw it as an opportunity to obtain easy money. Fortunately, authorities have been able to catch up with them and now the case is under investigation.
Before this case, in August this year, the SEC had previously posted an investors bulletin, where the institution alerted of a significant number of fraudulent activities in social media. Furthermore, the agency encouraged a skeptical and critical attitude toward investment information posted on online networks. It also made an interesting disclaimer, where it advised maintaining that attitude even if celebrities or known personalities are involved, usually through endorsements and testimonial marketing strategies. The SEC differentiated several types of fraud: impersonation and manipulation schemes, “Crypto” investment scams, and even “Romance” scams, which refer to deceptive relationships that usually occur through dating or social media apps. Even Forbes Magazine recently warned their readers of the increased fraud online activities because of the Christmas and holiday season.
Still, which are the factors that contribute to the increase in cases of online fraud? Should social media platforms be held accountable for scams performed by users on their bases? Are these activities criminally different than obvious “political” falsehoods? While it is debatable to which extent online networks are responsible for these hoaxes, they certainly facilitate such activities. “Anonymity” and the generation of target advertising are features that fuel the perpetration of online fraud. However, there are other factors involved in the spreading of misleading information. For starters, users have little information on how privacy and security tools protect them in the online environment.
In a recent study by professors at the College of Communication at the University of Navarra, researchers have found an interesting phenomenon that partially justifies how users remain victims of misleading content. They have called it the “nobody-fools-me-perception (NFMP).” A cognitive bias consisting of overconfidence in one’s ability to detect disinformation. More interestingly, factors like education and age seem to influence the effect of discrimination. For example, people with higher levels of education tend to believe themselves to be more critical than other users when spotting fake news. And there is a mutual distrust between younger and older generations, that believe the age to which they belong is more efficient at spotting false information. The sample used for the qualitative research was from Spanish users, yet the results were significant enough to be able to transfer this phenomenon to global audiences.
This sort of insight shouldn’t be overlooked because hoaxes still grow in victims and relevance. Despite being consistently told about the importance of credibility and skepticism in searching online information, this post does not intend to make our readers paranoid about the content they consume online. Instead, we are trying to build a more knowledgeable behavior when searching, buying, and entertaining ourselves online. Particularly, as the research from the University of Navarra has shown, since we all have the perception that we are difficult to fool and frauds like those commented only target “other” users.