When Social Media Becomes Fatal

When Social Media Becomes Fatal

A woman my wife and I know was ready to hop on a plane recently to visit her brother, whom she had been unable to reach via phone or text.

Her concern stemmed from news he had placed on social media about having cancer. She was determined to find out what in the world was going on. Was he undergoing chemo treatments? Facing a terminal diagnosis? How much time did he have left?

The following week we learned that she wouldn’t be departing for another state after all. Her brother—at an age where he should have known better—had reposted an item about his friend’s cancer diagnosis without making it clear to whom the news referred.

Somehow, he thought that posting news that alarmed family and close friends was going to raise awareness of the situation. Thus go the seeds of urban legends and other hysteria that floods the online world, usually with no resemblance to reality.

Social Media Viral Obituary

When Social Media Becomes Fatal blog post by Ken Walker Writer. Pictured: A coffiin, topped with flowers in the back of a hearse.This false alarm caused few ripples in the world, other than this woman being furious at her brother.

But more serious fakery has taken on new life in the age of Artificial Intelligence and fraudsters who care about nothing other than the chance to make a few bucks.

I read about such a case back in February, when Los Angeles Times staff writer Deborah Vakin wrote about scammers using AI to post fake news about her death.

Vakin learned about it when her father called to tell her to not be alarmed by what he was about to send her: a link to an obituary. Hers.

“There’s a rumor going around the (internet)…that you died,” he told her. “Your obituary—it’s going viral internationally.”

Turns out he had heard about it from Vakin’s aunt, who gets Google updates whenever her niece’s name appears online. The alert linked to the phony obituary.

“They said some really nice things about you,” her aunt said.

“It turns out there were several reports of my death circulating online,” Vakin wrote. “And in the words of Mark Twain, they were ‘greatly exaggerated.’”

Phishing for Money

It turns out the obituaries were part of an elaborate hoax, created by scammers using the arts and culture writer’s name as “clickbait.”

It was a multimedia operation, wrote Vakin, whose brother saw a phony obit on YouTube. Four different reports came in video form, with one depicting a car crash in the thumbnail and another showing a coffin exiting a funeral home.

A hacker in a beaanie, facing away from the camera with lines of "Matrix" line green code running down the screen.At the heart of it were phishing schemes. Namely, attempts to get clicks or viewers so the purveyors can attract advertisers and the revenue that comes with it.

Cause a reporter to deal with unending denials and experiencing heart palpitations in reading about your own death? Alarm friends and loved ones needlessly? Circulate “fake news” that really is fake? It is the epitome of a world that has gone mad and lacks a moral compass.

It’s also threatening the safety of everyone who goes online. A few weeks ago I had to change my email password again, for the second time this year alone. I received two alerts from identity theft services, warning that my address and password had circulated on the dark web.

What upsets me is that it shouldn’t be that difficult to track down scammers, since they leave a digital footprint everywhere they go. And, as Deborah Vakin’s case proves, it’s time for some serious action. Wonder if we can send Superman into cyberspace?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: