The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This viral Instagram hoax duped A-listers — and the man overseeing our nuclear arsenal

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The ramifications of Instagram’s supposedly new “rule where they can use your photos” weren’t totally clear.

But the warnings multiplied rapidly online: Your posts could end up being leveraged against you in court cases. There was some sort of deadline to declare your opposition. Even deleted pictures could become public — unless you reposted a note riddled with odd capitalization and inconsistent font sizes that spread the word about the threat to people’s privacy and declared that Instagram did not have permission to use your account’s content.

By the time Instagram weighed in Tuesday to debunk the hoax — a variation on an old false alarm that’s made the rounds on Facebook for years — a slew of celebrities had shared the misinformation with their sizable online followings. The long list of those apparently duped includes director Judd Apatow, actress Julia Roberts, actor Rob Lowe, singer Usher and, to some commenters’ particular derision, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

“Feel free to repost!! #nothanksinstagram,” Perry, a Republican former governor who twice ran for president, wrote next to an image of the viral note.

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As quickly as it all started, famous figures started walking the unfounded statements back. Apatow, Roberts, Perry and others deleted their posts. Perry was joking about the share within an hour of sharing the note, which he took down Wednesday morning: “I’ll be darned!! First time I’ve seen anything fake on the Internet!!” he commented below his post.

“There’s no truth to this post,” Instagram spokeswoman Stephanie Otway wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

Instagram states on its website that “nothing is changing” about users’ content rights. The social media site does not own content you post, it explains, but it has royalty-free license to “host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content,” depending on your privacy settings. That license ends when you delete your uploads or your account.

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The ridicule was just beginning, though.

Commenters expressed disbelief that a high-ranking government official such as Perry had apparently fallen for the hoax, which cited only a mysterious “Channel 13 News.” Since 2017, Perry has headed an agency that oversees the country’s nuclear deterrence programs and energy supply, a level of responsibility not lost on critics.

“YOU HANDLE NUCLEAR BOMBS??????” one person commented under Perry’s post spreading the privacy rules myth.

“how is someone like you in charge of something so important,” another chimed in.

The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment. But Perry continued to joke about the hoax later Wednesday, tweeting a statement granting Instagram the right to use content from his account including “The real truth behind Area 51” and “Occasional good old-fashioned trolling.”

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Lowe, known for hit TV shows such as “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation,” was promptly roasted by his son Johnny Lowe, who has a history of ribbing his dad over his social media posts and last week made fun of a workout selfie his father took in front of his framed Emmy nominations.

Two Russians prank called Energy Secretary Rick Perry and made him believe he was talking to Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. This isn't Perry's first 'oops' moment. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/The Washington Post)

Jumping into the discussion of the Instagram privacy hoax, Johnny Lowe pointed out that his brother Matthew Lowe went to law school. The note that Rob Lowe helped amplify suggested that sharing the viral message could provide legal protection from Instagram’s purported move to gain power over all of its users’ content.

“The violation of privacy can be punished by law,” the warning notes state, citing the same “UCC 1-308-11 308-103” and “Rome Statute” that showed up in similar hoaxes that earlier proliferated on Facebook. Not posting the note, the warning says, would give Instagram free rein to use your information.

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The Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court and deals with offenses such as genocide and war crimes — not data privacy. It’s not clear where UCC 1-308-11 308-103 comes from.

Comedian and “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah spoofed the “copy-pasta” with an Instagram post of his own that poked fun at the viral note’s grammatical errors.

“Don’t forget today start the new day of a hoax people fall for in the Internet,” he wrote.

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