The shaming of the screw: Hoaxsters highlight how easily rumour becomes truth online

14 Aug 2012

Graphics production company Day4 has left some Apple fans and commenters red-faced following a hoax involving a screw that never existed and a rumour that was quickly spun into ‘truth’.

In an experiment to test the spread of misinformation, the Day4 team started by rendering an image of a unique asymmetrical screw created in a 3D programme. They then emailed this image to themselves, took a screenshot and anonymously posted the strange screw on Reddit with the caption, “A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws.”

The seed was planted, and quickly the rumour mill sprang into action. First the screw that could potentially lock users out of their Apple devices was reported on Cult of Mac. More blogs followed, and then Yahoo!, Wired and MacWorld picked up the story. The discussion on the screw continued on Twitter, YouTube and Google+, and the further the story spread, the more it became interpreted as fact.

Day4’s little hoax revealed that the perceived level of truth that comes with a rumour such as this gets stronger as the story is distanced from its original source. While bloggers and news sources approached the story with scepticism, readers’ comments suggested that many took what they read as fact, while those who shared the story on their own social networks presented the rumour as a reality.

Plenty of rumours about devices and their components surface on a daily basis. Though they may not be reported as fact, an age of fast consumption sees online readers skim through dozens of articles at lightning speed, which leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation. There’s a lesson here for both readers and writers alike: don’t take everything you read online at face value.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.