A spoof news story on Weekly World News has convinced thousands of people that Facebook is to close down altogether on March 15th.

Despite appearing alongside reports that boxer Mike Tyson has a pigeon fetish and that alien spaceships are set to attack the Earth next year, the story has sparked panic on the internet.

The site ‘quotes’ founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying: “Facebook has gotten out of control, and the stress of managing this company has ruined my life. I need to put an end to all the madness.”

There’s also a ‘quote’ from a Facebook vice president saying that all stored data will be deleted on the 15th: “If you ever want to see your pictures again, I recommend you take them off the internet. You won’t be able to get them back once Facebook goes out of business,” he explains.

Given that the company’s recently been valued at $50 billion, this might all seem a little implausible.

But dozens of Facebook pages have been created mourning its departure or pleading with Zuckerberg to change his mind. There’s even a petition. Facebook’s been prompted to issue an alert on Twitter: “We didn’t get the memo about shutting down, so we’ll keep working away. We aren’t going anywhere; we’re just getting started,” it reads.

“Most people would probably never believe such a load of old nonsense as the claim that Mark Zuckerberg is going to shut down Facebook, but it only takes a small proportion of people to think it might be possible to turn a joke of a news story into an internet hoax,” says Graham Cluley of security firm Sophos.

“And although a hoax is nothing like as bad as a piece of malware worming its way between users and stealing information, it’s still a nuisance, clogging up communications, increasing the overall level of spam and perhaps leading people to make decisions for the wrong reasons.”