What actually is a hoax?

G DATA Guidebook

Perhaps you have already received a message like this: “A virus will set your hard disk on fire.” “Mark Zuckerberg is giving away his money.” “You will only be able to use your messaging service for free in future if you forward this message.” These are all hoaxes – digital chain letters, usually with sensationalist contents that are just bogus messages. You can find out here how dangerous hoaxes are and what you can do about them.


… have already seen a hoax on the internet.


… have never seen any hoaxes on the internet.


… think that new laws are required so Facebook and others have to act quicker to delete hoaxes.

Source: forsa. Online survey

How do I recognise a hoax?

Hoaxes can involve a wide range of subjects – warnings about computer viruses or supposed health risks, horror stories, conspiracy theories, calls for donations for the seriously ill and many more. All of these stories are designed to be spectacular but are not based on facts – they are simply being used as bait.

In some cases, you cannot recognise hoaxes directly, so a quick search on the Internet is helpful. In other cases, you can easily see through fake messages. They often describe something that is simply not possible in this way.

Hoaxes can be shocking – and spread like a digital wildfire. Shocked and shared: hoaxes spread at lightning speed through social media.

The following signs should set alarm bells ringing:

Five Alarm Signals

  1. a request to forward the message to as many people as possible
  2. the threat of consequences if you ignore the request
  3. no or fake source information that would add to the credibility
  4. no details cited on the author and origin of the information
  5. time information such as “last week” or “yesterday”  - a clear point in time is never mentioned

In many cases the structure of the message indicates that it has been copied and forwarded numerous times. You can see this, for example, from the fact that the text no longer has any formatting or numerous recipients are listed in the email.

A hoax is easy to forward. But it isn’t always sensible to do so blindly. Think first, then send – hoaxes exploit users’ tendency to worry.

Three examples of hoaxes

The generous founder of Facebook

“If you share this, Mark Zuckerberg will send you 4.5 million dollars.”
Since around 1999, a rumour has been circulating that companies such as Facebook or Microsoft will send people money for no reason. This hoax was first distributed as an email and is now found in social networks as well.*

Download warning

“If you download this screensaver, you will lose everything.”
This message was sent as a “warning” about another email with a malicious file attachment. Supposedly this virus wipes the hard disk and decrypts passwords. There are various versions of the hoax in circulation on the Internet, for example with warnings about dangerous PowerPoint presentations or .exe files.

The Facebook hoax

“Posting this will tell Facebook that distributing the contents of your profile is forbidden.”
Someone has created a hoax with this text as well. You automatically accept Facebook’s Terms of Use by just logging onto the platform and using it – a post like this has no legal relevance whatsoever. The paragraphs quoted in the status message do not exist or they actually relate to something different. For instance, one such post circulated in Germany quotes “Article I, 111, 112 and 113” of the German Penal Code as reference. First off, the Penal Code does not have an “Article I”. Paragraph 111 refers to the public incitement of criminal behaviour, paragraph 112 has been omitted and paragraph 113 refers to resisting enforcement officers.

How dangerous is a hoax and how can I protect myself?

The hoax message itself is harmless. You should simply ignore words of advice and recommendations on what to do. For example, in some warnings about digital malware, the recipients are requested to delete certain system files from their computer. This will supposedly protect them from the effects. Doing so, however can have the opposite effect – by deleting important files they are possibly creating security holes in their system or make it unusable.

There may also be an attempt behind the hoax messages to get hold of credit card data, user names and passwords. Therefore, personal data back should never be handed out in an answer. Links in the message should never be clicked, as a phishing website may be hidden behind them. Files in email attachments may contain malware and should not be opened. Keep your antivirus software permanently up to date so that malware can be immediately detected in the event of an attack.

Rumours are another type of hoax and dangerous in another way. They are often used to slander companies or individuals and contain defamatory information with little or no factual basis.

Hoaxes spread rapidly on Facebook. Many Facebook users are good multiplicators for those.

What are the senders hoping to achieve?

In many cases the senders of hoaxes are playing a prank and exploit the recipients’ gullibility in doing so.

The people who forward these messages are assuming that they are doing their fellow users a favour. But by warning friends and relatives about supposed risks and dangers, they only unnerve or annoy them.

Do not let the messages get to you. The senders of hoaxes are deliberately spreading false information.

Fake news - made-up stories as a way to form an opinion?

What are fake news?

Fake news are basically news which are made up and have no basis in facts.
When they appear on social media networks and other platforms, they often appear legitimate if they imitate the look of a renowned publication. Fake news exist about celebrities, companies and even entire groups of people who are blamed for something negative. Just as in a hoax, the makers of fake news aim to provoke a strong emotional reaction in the reader by using surprising, outrageous or scandalous reports as their vehicle. This has a purpose: if a person is scared or angry, he or she is more likely to believe a lie. If it confirms an opinion the reader has already had before, fake news become dangerous: through fake news, more and more people feel confirmed in their beliefs and they feel that they are not alone with their views. Cyber criminals have started using this mechanism to place phishing links or to distribute malware by enticing people to click on a fake news report.

Bots spread fake news articles

Those who like, share or comment on fake news are not necessarily real users: social bots are programs which can control fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. In most cases, the profiles have a profile picture, a couple of friends in their friend list but nothing more. Be careful: Friend requests from someone you never have heard of might be an attempt to spy on your profile and to collect contacs in order to appear more realistic.

Using specialized software, the operators can control thousands of these fake accounts and tell them what to do.
This can distort and falsify the overall opinion on the web and fuel discussions which ultimately serve their own needs.

What to do about hoaxes on the Internet?

Check each email message and post on social networks before clicking on “Forward”, “Like” or “Share”. Is the message it contains actually true? Tell those who have sent you such a message about the fake content. This will stop rumours and fake messages spreading on the Internet.