How to Survive a Viral Social Media Hoax

Most of us have come across legitimate viral content that people want to have seen. A social media hoax, however, is when a story spreads over the Internet, commonly through the social web, that is false but people believe that it’s true.

There are cases where this is fun, Jimmy Kimmel’s twerking hoax (watch the video at the end of this post!) is a great example, but for a brand it can be an online nightmare. Dealing with a problem in the real world is usually much easier, you talk with the person and discover what happened.


When a hoax starts out online the story could have become distorted so far that you may have little hope of finding and letting people know what the truth is. Read on to see how you can get on top of it, and come out nearly unscathed.

How to Survive a Viral Social Media Hoax

Surviving a viral social media hoax with all of your dignity intact can be a challenge. Not only is there the story itself damaging your reputation, but what people say about once they read this false claims can cause further damage.

Examples of a social media hoax

An example of a social media hoax that damaged the reputation of a company was the Associated Press’ @AP Twitter account tweeting out an explosions going off at the White House. This, as we know now, had never happened and was the result of their Twitter account being hacked after a clever phishing scam on their corporate network.

The Associated Press, of course, has nothing to do with this tweet. They still faced the faced the headache of cleaning up the mess and letting everyone know what had happened.

A major social media hoax story that has been making the rounds lately is the one concerning a young girl, also known as the KFC hoax. The story that outraged social media users was centered around the claim by the young girls’ family that her scarred face had resulted in her being asked to leave one of their restaurants.

The outcry on social media was immediate and damning. KFC, however, followed the appropriate steps and found out that, according to their investigation, the story was a viral hoax.

Steps to survive a social media hoax

1. Acknowledge that you are aware of the situation: You can not afford to sit back and let social media eat you up, further damaging your reputation by making baseless claims. Worse, your delay can be seen as further admission of guilt.

To help put a lid on this, let people know that you’re aware of the situation as soon as you find out. Say that you are aware of the situation, acknowledge that people are upset about it, and honestly tell people that you’re looking into what happened with a formal investigation.

Do not immediately take on blame. As the KFC hoax shows, you may have nothing to be blamed for.

Stay firm during investigation: During the investigation, you will need to send out updates often on the progress of the investigation you’re conducting. Do not give anyone time to think and comment on you ignoring the situation. Be careful not to word your comments in a way that people will think that you’re trying to bury the situation, they will then try to blow it up even bigger.

During the investigation, stay out of any direct comments on the situation. Your investigation needs to complete, as no one wants to hear half-truths any more. A positive spin to put on things right now is restating your commitment to discovering what actually happened so that everyone involved is satisfied.

If the viral hoax is true

Be responsible: If your investigation shows that the story is not a hoax, it may be time for you, or your organization to seek legal counsel, a public relations team, and additional social media support. A viral story is something that is bigger than any local news story, and can take lots of time to deal with properly – time that your business likely doesn’t have right now.

Through your social media accounts, it is time to show that you run a humble and fair company that is responsible for all actions committed under its name. Post as few times as possible about the hoax as each message is going to give another opportunity for trolls and outraged people to use the comment section below the post, or share it with their own comments, to aggravate the situation.

If the social media hoax is false

Do not gloat: If your investigation shows that the viral hoax was actually a hoax and untrue, do not think that now is the time to be smug or rub people’s nose in it. For the best results, you should issue a clear statement on your social media accounts, and not go after those who tried to ruin your reputation in the statement.

You have to be the mature person that you are and move on to your next order of business, or deal with the next issue. Dwelling on what happened will only encourage those who want to spread negativity to do so, and possibly cause confusion as people find the story for the first time and propagate the false story all over again.

Recover: To kick your recovery into high gear, you need to embark on a positive social media campaign. KFC did this by committing to donate money to the treatment of the young girl who was actually covered in facial scars.

You may never be able to completely erase the sting of a viral hoax. Following the steps above you can take some control over the situation, address it a way that web users respond to, and then get back to increasing your follower’s engagement with your social media account.

Matthew is the writer for Devumi Social Media Marketing Blog. There, you can find him writing about the latest developments in social media marketing, new posts go up every Friday. Come by for advice on YouTube, Google, Twitter, SoundCloud, and Pinterest, all with media rich content.