My heart almost stopped when I saw it on Facebook. Someone had posted and tagged a bunch of his friends, saying: “Fox Breaking News—16 people are confirmed dead in a roller coaster accident that occurred at Universal Studios in Florida. The roller coaster appeared to have suffered a mechanical breakdown, causing it to veer off the tracks in mid-air, plummeting all 24 passengers into the ground. Currently there are 8 listed in critical condition in an Orlando hospital. CCTV Footage of the incident has been uploaded to the Fox News team... [warning about how the footage won’t be aired on TV because of how graphic it is]. Watch footage of the accident here: [a strange, clearly shortened link].” Below the post was a picture of a burning roller coaster, with flames shooting up from its top.
My first reaction was shock and fear. I’ve gone to Universal before; it’s a great theme park and I had thought it was safe—but clearly it wasn’t as safe as I thought. Sixteen people killed? A burning coaster? This is insane. Then I was… skeptical. Did this event really happen? The link looks odd, and the language of the post doesn’t seem like an ordinary Facebook user wrote it.
I closed Facebook, went into Google News, and did a search for “Universal.” Surely if something had happened, it would be there. But there was no breaking news or stories about any roller coaster fires. I typed in “Universal theme park.” The most newsworthy item that popped up was about a new ride at the theme park; nothing about any tragedies.
Then I knew that I had nearly been duped. The post was a hacked post—some program or person must’ve taken control of someone’s account and put up the post, hoping that people would be fooled and click the link. The link wouldn’t lead to any news video; rather, it would likely lead to a fake site that would try to capture people’s Facebook logins, credit card numbers and the works—a hallmark of a scam. To quote Epoch Times, which did a story on this back in 2014 that I found while trying to verify the Facebook post, “The survey pages [that the fake links lead to] say they will give out prizes in exchange for their mobile phone number, address, and other personal information. However, this will ‘actually subscribe them to absurdly expensive SMS subscription services. Or, they may be asked to provide personal information as part of an offer. This information may later be sold to online marketing outfits and used to bombard victims with unwanted and annoying emails, surface mail, text messages and phone call,’ says [scam-warning website] Hoax-Slayer.”
Apparently this particular scam post has been around for a long time; it still upsets me nonetheless. I don’t blame the original poster—his account was hacked and this wasn’t his fault (although he should check and see what apps are linked to his account, remove any rogue ones, and maybe change his password as well). I blame those despicable sorts of people who try to capitalize on the commendable traits of human sympathy and curiosity by causing them to click on something like this, which seems plausible (albeit horrifying) at first. I made sure to look up the supposed story elsewhere, and was saved from clicking the false link, but not everyone will do the same.
What makes it worse is the particular timing of this right now. As I write this, the earthquake in Nepal and the Baltimore riots are fresh in my mind. Both of them are very different from each other, but both are disasters in their own right. In Nepal, people’s lives have been destroyed and they are struggling to survive in remote places that are hard to reach, and thus it’s been hard to give them any aid. In Baltimore, the city went through upheaval because racial tensions boiled over and tons of people lost their businesses and their sense of peace and calm. The two events aren’t comparable, but they happened at the same time, and heightened my sense that we live in a dynamic world where at any moment, anything can happen that could shock us senseless and flip everything on its head, whether it happens to us, to people in a city a few hours away, or to people thousands of miles across the world. We can never be sure of anything; as the verse says, “Many are the thoughts in Man’s heart, but the idea of God is established…” What we can do, of course, is to sympathize with those who go through upheaval and do our best to help them.
And that’s what’s so terrible about the false news story. It plays on that, trying to shock us and make us scared that something horrific has happened, that our world has been flipped upside down once again. And then people who want to know more, whether to figure out how to help or just to know for sure what seems to be going on, end up on a fake page that steals their information. Yes, people should be careful online; it’s good advice to never click any shady links and to make sure what you’re reading is true. But I really can’t bring myself to blame the people who click those links and believe in those stories, because I myself nearly did and understand where they’re coming from.
Oren Oppenheim, age 17, is a junior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist, but currently is drowning in emails from colleges. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.
By Oren Oppenheim