What do Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher have in common? If you believed everything you read on Twitter, it would be that they'd both recently died. But you don't blindly believe Twitter rumors, right?
You shouldn't, because rumors of major news events, which can quickly turn into trending topics whether or not there's any truth to them, are among scammers' favorite ways of spreading malware or redirecting eager readers to harmful sites.
Graham Cluley from the security firm Sophos spotted the Gorbachev death rumor; the tweets that claim the former Soviet statesman died appear to come from the Twitter feed of Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Prime Minister of Sweden. Cluley said the account in Reinfeldt's name was created just an hour before the tweet was sent.
While the Gorbachev rumor was just that, it's not uncommon for Twitter scammers to spread false information about celebrities and politicians in the hopes your curiosity will get the best of you and you'll click on whatever link they include in the post. Earlier this month, a similar scam hit the social network claiming that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had died.
In the event of any major breaking news, always go directly to a legitimate news source's website rather than clicking on a link in a Twitter post, which could redirect you to any number of compromised Web pages.
This particular hoax, it turns out, may have been the work of Tommaso de Benedetti, an Italian schoolteacher and notorious prankster who has recently impersonated Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the social network.
In an interview with The Guardian, de Benedetti said he spreads death rumors simply to expose how unreliable social media is, and how blindly major news outlets trust it.
"Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world, but the news media believes it because of its need for speed," de Benedetti said.