What Viral Scams Can Teach Us About Information Literacy


Much has been written about the rise of digital fraud and how social media ushered in an era of endless viral scams bombarding the world’s internet users every second of every day. In reality, like almost all social ills blamed on social media, viral fraud and social age scams only mirror how fraudsters have long taken advantage of new communication technologies and the will of the public. human nature to suspend disbelief and blindly believe complete strangers. .

Despite all the attention viral fraud and digital financial deception has received in the age of social media, it’s important to recognize that such efforts predate the affordance of social media. As pundits, the press and policymakers attempt to blame the modern deception on user interfaces and algorithmic choices of social platforms, the reality is that criminal actors are only adapting their workflows to the latest. support, as they always have.

From “bucket shops” to “boiler rooms”, from postal service to telephone, fraudsters have long used technology to reach the masses with their schemes. The early days of radio and television comedies were full of storylines involving get-rich-quick schemes involving the latest technology of the time. Fake stock certificates, bogus mines, and non-existent businesses were both comedy fodder and real commentary on how scammers each decade used the increasing speed and reach of communications technology to spread the word. the word and reach new customers.

As home phones have become commonplace, so-called “boiler rooms” have grown in popularity. Indeed, not so long ago, telephone fraud was the crime of the era related to communications technology.

Those who remember the early days of the Internet will remember the infamous emails from the “Nigerian Prince” and their relatives that harassed the first inhabitants of the Web. Despite a quarter of a century of information literacy training, such scams are apparently still quite lucrative.

Social media has helped broaden the reach of these scams while drastically reducing their cost. Bulk email, while much cheaper than bulk email, still costs money. In contrast, social media virality is completely free, and its influencer model rebrands the programs as others. While email headers can be forged to flag a fake sender, social media’s share and repost model means that a well-designed system is actually reposted under a myriad of genuine names. More importantly, the influential and community nature of the pre-digital age that once helped crooks spread their messages has naturally moved into the social age and is in fact growing stronger as social media companies grow. focus on the community.

Of course, it’s no surprise that viral scams are by no means a new product of the digital age. Yet, strangely, so many of the proposed solutions to tackle digital fraud treat it as if it were something new and separate from the affordances of social media.

Offline fraud and digital fraud are built on blind trust in strangers. It’s the same problem that underlies the deluge of digital lies that plague modern social platforms. The will of human nature to place absolute trust in information randomly encountered on the web has shifted from the cautionary slogan taught to schoolchildren to the actual description of the web today. Creating a more skeptical and informed society that looks for things before they believe them would go a long way in solving many of the digital world’s ills, from fraud to fake news.

Still, it’s the second half of the scammer’s playbook that makes this comparison so intriguing. Fraud has long relied on a restricted information environment in which the scammer relies on his victim not being able to refute the details of his scam. In the pre-digital age, conducting research required a visit to the local library and considerable time working with a reference librarian and the client’s own surveys. In the digital age, much of the world’s knowledge is just a click away, but for some reason we still fail to do our due diligence. Indeed, scams have evolved from a lack of knowledge to structuring in such a way as to deter the intended victim from spending time acquiring this knowledge.

In short, even with all the information in the world at our fingertips, we regularly fall into the trap of scams that might have been trivially identified if we had just spent a few minutes researching them.

The fact that the world of get-rich-quick scams and Nigerian princes’ schemes is still alive and well in 2019 reminds us that the rise of “fake news” and “deep fakes” is symptomatic of a digital society with skills in deeply shattered information literacy matter. .

Ultimately, solving the web’s problems, fake news and deep fakes to foreign influence and digital fraud, won’t require more information or better algorithms, but rather a newly-informed society. History teaches us how impossible this goal is and why we keep coming back to the idea of ​​quick technological solutions.


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