Can you trust what you read on Facebook?

by Jonathan Powell.  Retired Information Security Consultant.

   Reading Facebook is a bit like overhearing a conversation when walking around Tesco. Would you take that as gospel? Let’s try some examples…

…its like overhearing someone in Tesco

    Your overhear someone saying the store is on fire.  Do you run or continue your shopping.  Well, obviously, that depends.  So lets give it some context.  The speaker is a young person, still in their dressing gown and still walking calmly filling their trolley.  Now would you run?  Perhaps you’d sniff the air a bit, or even look over your shoulder, but I can’t see panic setting in.

  Let’s change things.  The speaker is in a FireFighter’s uniform and carrying a loudhailer.  OK, now things are different and you will be on your toes with no further thought.  So what’s the difference?  I suggest its context and attribution.

…understanding context and attribution

  Big words, but we know what they mean.  If the person is in the right place at the right time and appears to be who they say they are and have the authority to say it.  Then you believe them.  Facebook is exactly the same.  So, for that matter, is any social media, or website.

Whenever you see a message, you need to check its context and attribution.  Consider the message “My mate is a nurse and he says that eating ice cream will reduce our risk of catching the Virus” (deliberately silly, so I don’t get accused of starting rumours). You can be pretty sure that it’s a load of boloney.  But your best mate shared it on a group you are both in.  So what?  Just because it’s been shared, doesn’t alter it being a total fabrication.  It just means your friend is not very discerning about what he shares.

But what if the message said “Professor Frank Smith, head of virology at Uptown Medical Research Says in the attached article that eating ice cream will reduce the chance…”.  You might just believe it.  Or, at least, take the time to read and consider it.  The difference is that the post contains reference to a specific person with authority and backs that up with a link to a trusted news feed or professional journal.  This is what attribution is all about.

…your role in making Facebook safer

So how can you make Facebook a safer place?  Don’t go forwarding on “advice” and rumour unless you have spent a bit of time checking it out first.  If it has links, then follow them and see if you trust them.  

At the very least do a bit of your own research.  Go on Google and search for the theme of the post.  Often a “Fact Checker” site will report it as a hoax or scam.  If this is the case tell the original poster and ask politely that they remove it.  Of course you may see the story repeated on the BBC or your favourite newspaper’s site.  You may see the story on CCC’s webpage, Public Health Wales or some other authority.  Then you can trust it.  Or, more properly, have a higher level of trust in it.

So where do these lies originate from?  Who knows.  Probably it’s more useful is to ask why.  Sometimes, it’s just people with a grudge, people who believe the world is out to get them.  People who believe that everything the Government tells them must be a lie.  Sometimes, its just out of a sense of trouble making.  “If I start a lie, how long will it take before it comes back to me and how many people have believed it?”.  Really though, it’s not the originators that are the problem.  It’s your mates and fellow group members who perpetuate the lies and give them credence and anonymity.

Just don’t be one of them.

Stay safe and well


Jonathan Powell


Jonathan is a retired Information Security Consultant, mIISP and accredited CISSP (both rtd).  Having spent 40 plus years as an IT professional mainly with BT, and the last 15 specifically in Information Security.  He was responsible for the security of some of BT’s most public websites and many of the services offered to other businesses.  He also spoke in schools under the UNICEF banner, teaching how to stay safe online.   

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