Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Mental Dysfunction Of A Hoaxer

By Coenraad De Beer

A hoax about the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela has been in circulation among South Africans since last week. This has caused waves of panic and shocked the nation. Mr. Mandela is a role model for many people, not just in South Africa, but worldwide and has always been an icon for peace, so it is understandable why so many people were shocked about this news. But was it possible to prevent the confusion caused by this hoax?

It all started with an SMS stating that Mr. Mandela was on life support systems and the media was refusing to break the news. Soon after that, the hoax started to circulate on the Internet. But like any rumour, people started to make it a bit juicier. It did not take long before the hoax transformed into the message of a deceased Mr. Mandela and the police being put on high alert. I'm not going into the details of what the hoax exactly meant and what is rumoured to occur if this was not a hoax, that is not the purpose of this article, but I would like to discuss the damaging effects of false statements like these and the frustration of dealing with this kind of spam.

The South African media immediately jumped to the conclusion that the message originated from right-wing activists who are trying to create panic among the people of South Africa. I simply don't understand what they will gain from this by creating panic among their own people, so it makes no sense to claim that these messages came from right-wing activists. By making a claim like this, the media simply confirmed what would happen if this was not a hoax, which makes them just as guilty as the hoaxers, creating even more panic.

This simply illustrates the confusion and frustration caused by hoaxes. People start to blame each other, pointing fingers and throwing stones at each other, jumping to all kinds of conclusions and I guess that this was the exact intent of the creators of this specific hoax, creating havoc and chaos. But we are missing the point if we start to blame each other for the result of a hoax. The creator or creators of a hoax should be put in a rehabilitation centre for the mentally challenged. I can see the purpose behind unsolicited commercial e-mails, because it holds financial benefits for the creator and don't get me wrong, I strongly condone any kind of spam. But I can't see any benefit for the creator of a hoax, except for the satisfaction of confusing people and causing panic. This is the sign of a psychopath who needs a straightjacket.

And what about the fools who spread these lies like zombies by forwarding the message to all their friends? They are just as psychotic as the creator, if not worse. I mean, if you get a message from a friend who are unable to verify accuracy and truthfulness of the information and you cannot verify it either, why bother sending it to other people, wasting their time? You only contribute to the problem by letting it spread like a bush fire and other people have to put out the fires afterwards.

There are tons of examples of hoaxes, chain letters and petition lists, created ages ago, but still in circulation today, because people continue to forward them, fuelling the wave of hoaxes and spam filling up our mailboxes every day. So is it possible to prevent a hoax from going this far? Of course, a little common sense and self-control against gossip can go a very long way.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud and educating users against online scams and malicious software.

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