The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hoax as “an act intended to trick or dupe”, but it is difficult to trace the exact historical origins of the hoax as a concept. Suffice to say, hoaxes are as old as time itself, and were initially innocent practical jokes. Once the mail service became more affordable, hoax chain letters ensured that bamboozling could spread further than it ever had before, and when the printing press was invented, hoaxes became mainstream.

However, the advent of the internet has caused hoaxes to balloon into the phenomenon they’ve become today. Social media has made it easy to circulate hoaxes between literally millions of people around the world, with many earnestly believing that they’re doing their friends a favour by sharing what they think is important information.

Hoaxes that spread on Facebook are not uncommon, and you have probably received a message telling you that your Facebook account has been cloned or that Mark Zuckerberg is giving away millions of dollars to Facebook users that share or pass along a message. On WhatsApp, fear is often employed as a tactic to sow division among people, and messages announcing impending doom are common.

“Fake news” was deemed the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017, but the term itself has become a bit of a conundrum, with it often being used to describe news that is not untrue, but instead inconvenient or counterproductive to a particular viewpoint or argument. Whichever way you look at it, untruths have infiltrated our lives like never before, and the onus now falls squarely on the users of social media to establish whether something they receive is, in fact, true – especially before forwarding or sharing with others in their social media circles.

How to verify the truth of a message

Even if the internet is the purveyor of the disease of online hoaxes, it also offers an antidote in the form of various online fact-checking resources. Should you ever receive a message with dubious claims, you need look no further than one of the most prominent fact-checking resources on the web, Snopes. Enter keywords into the search bar on the Snopes website to establish whether the message you’ve received has been identified as a hoax. Chances are, it probably is – but knowing that it is ensures that the hoax doesn’t spread any further than your inbox.

For news articles that look suspect, Africa Check is a reliable fact-checking platform for local news, but internet users should take care to also verify the source of the news. Fake news websites often closely resemble actual news websites, but here is a list of confirmed fake news websites that may help you in verifying whether the source of an article is legitimate.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t believe everything you receive or read on social media channels. Things aren’t always what they seem, but if you do a little digging, the truth is sure to be out there.

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