Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why do educated folks fall for internet hoaxes? The saga of Harshit Sharma

Yesterday I had posted a set of Q&A about “technology addiction” but it seems the social impact of technology hoaxes go deeper.

Hindustan Times has an article about a youngster and his family falling for a rather unsophisticated hoax: a 16-year old being offered a multi-million rupees job opportunity by the tech giant Google. (ref: Google job that wasn’t: 16-year-old diagnosed with ‘confusional psychosis’, parents affected too)

Harshit Sharma with his mother Bharti Sharma and father Rajinder Kumar Sharma on the Chandigarh-Delhi highway on Monday August 7.
Harshit Sharma with his mother Bharti Sharma and father Rajinder Kumar Sharma on the Chandigarh-Delhi highway on Monday August 7.(Anil Dayal/HT)

The hoax got amplified late last month when the Department of Public Relations of Chandigarh Administration in India issued a Press Release that claimed (link)

“After completion of his training he will get remuneration of 12 lacs per month. He went for online interview through video conferencing and was selected on the basis of posters designed by him while doing class 12th under the supervision of his teachers.”

The PR instantly went viral and was picked up by mainstream media and Digirati: the story of an Indian high-school graduate getting a multi-million-rupee job offer had the right element of intrigue and Cinderella like aspect to it.

The reports and bloggers blindly echoing the story didn’t pause to think if this was too good to be true. After all, the guy, Harshit Sharma, claimed to be an ‘average student’ and didn’t have other past success or other credentials. A Hindustan Times article claimed:

A Chandigarh student has been selected by the internet giant Google for icon designing.
Harshit Sharma, who completed Class 12 from the Government Model Senior Secondary School (GMSSS), Sector 33, this year, will be leaving for the US in August.
Selected for Google's special programme, he will be trained initially for a year. During this period, he will receive a stipend of Rs 4 lakh per month. On completing the training, he will receive Rs 12 lakh per month. The information was released by government officials on Saturday. They said Google has told him to join by mid-August.

By internet standards, this wasn’t even a rather elaborate prank. A quick call to Google confirmed the story was a hoax. So, why did Harshit, and more importantly his educated parents - Harshit's father is a high school principal - fall for this? And, why did they play along when media came knocking?

And in a rather sad end to the saga, the family is now seeking help for the ‘confusional psychosis!’

The lesson here is obvious: there are an innumerable variety of hoaxes, pranks and tricksters on the web. When it comes to the internet, check and double check, especially from the source.