Hashtag terms used for mischief and malice: Internet Scambusters #572
A hashtag is a combination of a hash symbol ("#") and a keyword, used as a shortcut to find out about trending topics on social networks.
At least that's the theory. But they're also used for mischievous, spiteful and sometimes downright malicious purposes.
In this week's issue, we explain the threat, why you need to know about it, and what you should do if you need to take further action.
And now for the main feature...
Alert on Hashtag Hijacks, Spamming and Trolling
Who would have guessed that the humble hash symbol (#) would come to play the big part it does today in online communication -- turning its pairing with a word or phrase, known as a hashtag, into a useful device that's also a target for tricks?
If you use social networks like Twitter or Facebook, you'll know that the hashtag is used to highlight a topic considered to be of wide public interest.
Placing the symbol before a word enables the networks to pull all postings with the same theme into a single list that others can search for.
People use them to highlight their thoughts or activities relating to topics in the news -- "#hurricane" or "#election" or "#superbowl" for instance.
Anyone interested in these same subjects can read what everyone else is saying about them on a single page by simply clicking on a hashtag or doing a search on the term on the network.
Hashtags are also used by companies to promote their products or name, and the networks produce lists of what they call trending topics -- the subjects that are attracting the most use of hashtags.
So far, so good.
The trouble is that the principle of banding together to share ideas is open to abuse by and against individuals, companies and political parties.
For example, there's growing evidence they're being used for cyber-bullying attacks, with online groups using a tag to gang up against a victim.
It starts with maybe just one or two people posting scores or even hundreds of comments about the victim with the same hashtag, until the subject starts gaining momentum on the networks.
Others then join in. Often, they don't even know the victim; they just get some sort of kick out of being spiteful.
Complaints about this behavior are starting to appear on Twitter bulletin boards; for example, this one, which appeared a few months ago (we've removed the names):
"I would just like to throw it out there that the user (A) has been cyber bullying a young innocent woman named (B), spamming the hashtag (name of hashtag) and in return many people have been getting involved in cyber bullying this young lady."
The post is followed by several comments from others claiming to have been bullied this way.
In another incident, California students used insulting personal terms to create a hashtag on the photo network Instagram, which they then used to besmirch the reputation of other pupils.
Internet tricksters with nothing better to do also use popular hashtags in their own posts, which have nothing to do with the supposed subject.
For instance, they might write something totally malicious or untrue, then add an unconnected hashtag (for example "#superbowl"), which will ensure their post appears on the relevant search page list.
Companies are also targeted through the use of hashtags.
Perhaps the best-known example happened when the fast food chain McDonalds launched a publicity campaign using the hashtag "#McDStories" in 2012.
Inviting customers to use the tag and post offbeat stories turned to disaster when people started to use it to malign the company.
Rightly or wrongly, huge lists of negative stories about the restaurant chain started building up on the networks.
Bad news for McDonalds.
Other firms have fallen victim too, most recently the mobile messaging company RIM, producer of BlackBerry devices.
Similar "hashtag hijacks" or "bashtags" as they are called, can happen in political campaigns.
Candidates or groups who choose and use a positive-sounding hashtag -- something like "#JohnDoeSuccess" for example -- quickly find it turned against them.
Knowing that John Doe's fans are going to be clicking on the hashtag, rivals start using it with malicious stories.
So what can you do about hashtag hijackers, bullies and trolls?
First, being aware of what they're up to should induce a healthy dose of skepticism into the way you regard hashtags.
Second, if you're a parent, be aware of the bullying risk; talk about it to your kids -- both as potential victims and possible participants in a cyber-bullying attack.
If you're a victim (or parent of one) of an orchestrated hashtag bullying or falsifying incident, report it to the relevant authorities (e.g., school or law enforcement) and the social network involved.
Each network has its own way of dealing with these incidents. Here's the link for reporting them on Twitter.
Also, check out this earlier Scambusters issue on cyber bullying, Internet Safety: How to Protect Your Child from Cyber Bullying.
At a time when we're often overwhelmed by the amount of information available on the Internet, there's no doubt that hashtags can play a useful role in helping focus on the subjects that interest us.
Even the hashtag "#cyberbullying" has been used positively in the campaign against this insidious behavior.
But it's important for all of us to understand how hashtags work, how they can be used and, more importantly, how to spot when they're being abused.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!