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Scam Alert: How to Spot Hoax Posts in Your Facebook Groups

Facebook groups have a serious misinformation problem, according to a new report from a major fact-checking site – and the hundreds of hoax posts uncovered about fugitive snakes and serial killers likely only hint at the extent of the global problem.

The report of Complete done (through The Guardian), an independent fact-checking charity in the UK, has compiled data and examples gathered over the past year in its studies of online disinformation. Overall, Full Fact found 1,200 examples of hoax posts in Facebook groups over the past 12 months, which it says are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg.”

The charity says judging the true extent of the problem is difficult, because “many hoax posts are never verified or reported”. But it has emerged that at least 115 different communities across the UK have fallen victim to the hoaxes, and that these posts have also appeared in many groups overseas.

Many of these hoaxes are serious and designed to “terrify local communities,” according to Full Fact. One case in Dundee, Scotland alleged that a serial killer was on the loose and “hunting” local communities, while others attempted to lure people in to help find missing dogs or children who don’t exist. The charity also found similar examples in Facebook groups in the US and Australia.

What’s behind the hoaxes?

So why do these hoaxes occur? Full Fact states that many hoax creators use a “bait and swap” approach to later turn their fake stories into engagement posts or affiliate links for cashback and giveaway sites.

For example, a post in Doncaster, UK about a missing person was later edited and replaced with an unrelated post advertising a contest to win baskets of chocolate. When the post was edited, it had already been shared “over 100 times”. This tactic is common, according to Full Fact, with edited posts usually containing an active link that you need to click to leave Facebook.

We asked Meta for comment on the issue of hoaxes in Facebook groups and a spokesperson told us: “Fraudulent activity is not permitted on our platforms and we have removed infringing posts and accounts brought to our attention. While no application is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to stop scams and the people responsible for them. Last year we also introduced new tools to help Facebook group admins prevent the spread of misinformation and manage interactions in their groups.

Three phones on a blue background showing admin settings for Facebook groups

Meta has previously announced new features for admins to help them moderate posts (above), but Full Fact believes it can go further. (Image credit: Meta)

But Full Fact isn’t convinced Meta has done enough, saying the policy changes on Facebook “appear to have inadvertently helped hoax posts in local community groups become a global phenomenon.” The key one in 2013 was said to allow Facebook group users to edit posts — best of all, posts retain likes or shares even when words and images are edited.

If you’ve engaged with an edited post, you don’t currently receive any notifications about the content change. Further fanning the flames of the problem was another policy change in 2021, which allowed people to join groups without any admin approval. While admins are still able to restrict who posts and comments in groups, Full Fact says this change has made local groups more open to infiltration by people from outside the area.

How to avoid hoaxes in Facebook groups

A laptop screen against a blue background shows someone checking the edit history of a post

(Image credit: Future)

Given the tactics hoaxers employ on Facebook groups, one of the best ways to check them or avoid sharing them is to see if the post has been edited. You can do this by clicking on the three dots at the top right of the post and clicking “View edit history” (above).

But Full Fact has also put together a separate handy guide spot hoaxes in Facebook groups, which contains more tips. These include checking to see if comments on the post are disabled (less common in genuine posts asking for help), looking to see if the image has been used elsewhere (using Google image search), and watching out for posts that have been created from a newly created page, rather than a personal profile.

You can also do a quick check of a post’s text by pasting it into the Facebook search box in the top left corner and seeing if it’s been used elsewhere with different images. For local groups, Full Fact also says it’s worth checking the language to see if it doesn’t appear to be from your region.

While Meta has introduced new tools for group admins — such as those announced in 2022 that allow them to automatically approve or deny member requests — and have also partnered with 90 independent fact-checking organizations (including Full Fact), there it’s clearly still a problem with hoax posts. So it’s worth arming yourself with the above tips and double-checking posts about missing dogs or serial killers if you’re an avid user of Facebook’s otherwise useful groups feature.

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