For the Love of God, Stop Falling for Instagram Hoaxes

It's easier to believe than it is to investigate

Hoax key on a keyboard's Return key

 Getty Images

With its smooth surfaces, vibrant colors and all-too-perfectly staged settings and poses, I know the Instagram aesthetic when I see it. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include a paragraph of text that looks as if it was photocopied on your dad’s old Xerox machine.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed in search of new visual delights, I saw this affront to my visual cortex repeated over and over again. It was a warning about a new Instagram rule that would, in effect, make everything you ever published on the platform public, including messages and private photos. Apparently, the information came straight from a “Channel 13” news report. However, the meme asserts that by simply copying and pasting the entire note on your own Instagram feed, you can legally prevent Instagram (and by extension Facebook) from using your photos and messages.

We’ve Seen this Message Before

I recognized this message as something similar I’d seen on Facebook, and when I checked the debunking site Snopes, I found that this hoax dates back at least seven years, with little change to the text (no wonder it looks like a bad photocopy).

Reputable news sites have flooded into the breach to debunk the hoax, but there’s a reason urban legends like this persist.

Instagram posts
These virtually identical posts are hoaxes that generated significant buzz on Instagram. And these two celebrities were not the only ones to share it.

Celebrities Help Spread the Misinformation

First of all, the postings I and others noted were not just on random Instagram users’ feeds, but on celebrity ones. Guardians of the Galaxy Star Dave Bautista posted it (it’s still up right now). So did Zoe Saldana, Julia Roberts, Rob Lowe, and Debra Messing. Roberts, Messing, and Saldana removed the posts, but not before millions saw it. The amplification effect from a celebrity Instagram post is thousands of times stronger than it is for mere mortals. And, guess what? Celebrities follow other celebrities, many of whom liked these spurious posts, which made the nonsense appear even more relevant.

Like so many other influencers and de facto leaders, they didn’t take the time to investigate. They didn’t even do a sniff test. I mean, what the heck is “Channel 13?" In my neighborhood that’s always been PBS (at least before the advent of cable, streaming, and 1,000 cable channels), but it’s not likely that it’s the same in other locales. Plus, these days, we tend to identify news organizations by their station and TV show names: CNN, Fox News, CBS, Today, GMA, etc.

Don't Copy and Paste These Hoaxes

As Internet citizens, we have to recognize that anytime anyone asks us to simply copy and paste a message on our feed and that we will “be protected,” “gain wealth,” “help the less fortunate,” “set legal precedent,” it’s almost invariably garbage or worse. If none of that triggers a warning, just remember that virtually all “copy and paste” posts should be ignored and avoided at all costs.

You have to have a willing audience on the other side, one that already believes at least some of the wildest conspiracy theories and is hungry for more.

Influencers not taking their roles very seriously is nothing new, but the rapid spread (again), of this myth is also a window into why we can no longer control the spread of fake news.

We Believe Because We Want To (But We Shouldn't)

The celebrities who reposted this message can’t shoulder all the blame. First, they have a legitimate fear of their likenesses being repurposed for commercials and other business enterprises without their permission. Also, they’re simply feeding into existing fears about social media and the platforms we love to hate. Distrusting Facebook, Instagram, Google, Amazon, and others is nothing new, but some of these companies have in recent years confirmed our worst fears by playing fast and loose with our data. So, consumers and stars can be forgiven on some level for their confirmation bias.

Still, assuming Instagram is capriciously opening up all your data to anyone who wants it is like assuming that a petty thief is also the same guy who robbed Brinks or that a person who is pretty good a math can probably work out a solution for the Riemann hypothesis.

This is how fake news works. It’s not enough to write or produce something that skews, misrepresents, or completely ignores the facts. You have to have a willing audience on the other side, one that already believes at least some of the wildest conspiracy theories and is hungry for more.

Why question or investigate when something agrees with you?

It’s Time to Challenge Our Own Beliefs and Protect Everyone’s Sanity

And that’s the problem. We don’t want to be challenged and we certainly won’t challenge ourselves to find the truth. Instead, we keep posting crackpot theories about our social media privacy, new RIP’s for celebrities who died five years ago, and latching onto wild theories about deep states.

As a journalist, I do have a built-in BS meter and it sent me searching on Snopes where I found the debunk in a matter of minutes. But I fear I’m the exception, not the rule. 

As the X-Files once said, "The truth is out there." Just don’t depend on anyone else to look for it.