It surprises me when I browse Facebook, which celebrates its 20th birthday today, that some people are still taken in by posts that are clearly hoaxes.

When Facebook first went live on February 4, 2004 from the Harvard student room of 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, no-one could have predicted what a social behemoth it would become. From its modest beginnings the online networking platform now has more than three billion regular users (more than a third of the global population) and the page on which I share links to my columns or the occasional picture is a minute pinprick on the surface of the social media equivalent of Planet Jupiter.

The numbers above make you realise just what a powerfully malevolent tool it could be when the wrong hands get hold of it. A friend of mine is a performer and regularly posts about upcoming events. I had a notification about a show that, unusually, he hadn’t told me about. When I clicked on it, it took me to a page that was selling something far more shocking than show tickets. My friend’s page had been hacked.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Facebook celebrates its 20th birthday on February 4

So you do have to be vigilant about what you click on, what you comment upon and what you share on these public platforms. One popular current scam is about lost or missing pets that don’t actually exist, and yet they get countless ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ from sympathetic people wanting to help, but who haven’t gone to the trouble of finding out if the appeal is genuine. Facebook declares that it removed 1.5 billion fake accounts in the last quarter of 2022 alone. There must be money to be made in them because why otherwise would they go to the trouble of creating them? Perhaps because I am a trained journalist, I am automatically sceptical, and check sources out for myself before I expose something to my friends on Facebook.

There was one post labelled ‘Life in the 1500s’ that caught my eye. It started like this (please forgive the coarse terminology): “People used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were ‘piss poor’. But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot. They ‘didn't have a pot to piss in’ and were the lowest of the low.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Facebook celebrates its 20th birthday on February 4

The long post featured other well-known phrases that it declared had all originated in 16th Century England, such as ‘dirt poor’ which came about because only the rich had formal floor coverings in their homes while the poor only had mud. The saying ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’, so it claimed, evolved as a result of the youngest child being the last in the queue for the bi-annual bath and could disappear in the filthy water; ‘upper crust’ referred to rich people because they got to eat the best bit of the bread loaf, which was the top.

As it turns out, although fun to read, this purported account of the etymology of these well-known sayings, is in reality a load of hogwash that has been doing the rounds for even longer than Facebook has existed. It first appeared in 1999 and was perpetuated by round-robin emails that often landed in your inbox on a Friday afternoon to entertain you before knocking off for the weekend. It was debunked by historical experts almost as soon as it appeared.

Just so you know, there is no written record of those phrases involving poor people and urination having been used before the 20th Century, so the claim that they are 16th Century is rubbish. The one about urine being used in the tanning process is, however, true. As for babies in bath water, that saying was originally a German proverb dating from 1512. The first trace of it in English dates from 1849. As for ‘upper crust’, this phrase dates from the 19th Century, referring to the aristocracy, and ‘dirt poor’ is not even an English phrase but originated in America.

Despite all this, though, I can’t help but admire the creativity of whoever wrote it, and wonder if they are surprised it is still fooling readers 25 years later.

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