Internet Hoaxes and Urban Legends:
by Dan Simpson
If you use email, chances are that you have fallen prey to an e-mail-spread hoax, at least once. And most of us have been naive enough to forward a hoax to a billion of our friends!
We get an urgent e-mail message alerting us that poor little Johnny Smith is dying of cancer and the only way to save him is by forwarding this e-mail to everyone we know. Its puzzling to me that individuals, who are normally bright, intuitive, and critical thinkers, so easily succumb to these online pranks. Perhaps its because our lifestyles are so fast-paced and the medium of e-mail is so immediate, we click before we think.
However, the phenomenon of urban legends isnt simply a product of our technological age. American folklorists started collecting "urban belief tales" in the 1940s, and the field blossomed in the 1960s as researchers began analyzing why these bizarre narratives were accepted as truths. By the 1980s urban legends were a major topic for folklore researchers.
Urban legends can travel by word of mouth or print, but the Internet has become a prime vehicle for their dissemination. Alligators are living in the sewers of New York City. Black-market organ thieves abduct business travelers and remove their kidneys in the middle of the night. The glue on ATM deposit envelopes is laced with cyanide. AIDS-infected needles are hidden in pay phone coin-return slots. And one of my favorites is the tale of the $250 Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Regardless of how they spread, urban legends and hoaxes share the same characteristics according to University of Utah professor Harold Brunvand in a recent study titled, "The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story!" "The tales are always about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and acquire a persistent hold on the imagination with their bizarre elements of suspense."
"Many urban legends are a reflection of current societal concerns or a search for excitement," said Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband David, runs www.snopes.com, a Web site that debunks urban legends. The couple has collected more than 1,000 urban legends, with less than one percent of the tales actually being true.
Such tales create nightmares and a lot of extra work for companies, law enforcement, government agencies, and health department officials. For example, the recent hoax over the Costa Rican bananas supposedly carrying "flesh-eating" bacteria created a tidal wave of queries to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "At the peak of the scare, we were getting 250 phone calls and about 500 e-mails per week," said Dr. James Watt of the CDC.
So how can we curtail this madness? Try a healthy dose of skepticism, says Dr. Jeff Stier of the American Council of Science and Health.
I have been informally studying and combating the hoaxes and urban legends for about two years. My most practical advice is simply this: Don't pass stuff on! Virtually every e-mail that sounds an alarm about some problem and enjoins you to "forward this to everyone you know" is bogus. Just put a personal moratorium on trying to be the Good Samaritan in warning your friends about every scare that pops into your inbox. Just stop. It's that simple.
If you do receive an e-mail alert that you just can't ignore, at least stop and think. Take some time to authenticate it. Is the original message signed by a real person with a phone number and address. If not it's probably bogus. Does it give you a phone number or Web address for more details? Think about it, if the information is not important enough to be featured on the Web site of a legitimate organization, how important or true could the warning be? If there is a legitimately serious computer virus going around, it will be a top news story at ABC.com, CBS.com, NBC.com, CNN.com, and so on. If it's a legislative issue, what specific law-making body is reviewing it? If the warning simply says "Congress," it's probably false -- It should specify the Senate or the House. Does the Congressman actually exist? Probe around the Web site of the appropriate agency (see my bookmarks page for some helpful links:http://www.simpsoncity.com/links/Government.html).
One of the most informative and authoritative Web sites for dispelling Internet farces is Hoaxbusters (http://HoaxBusters.ciac.org/HoaxBustersHome.html), a service of the U.S. Department of Energy. They have organized the various kinds of hoaxes into eight categories: Malicious Code (Virus and Trojan ) Warnings; Urban Myths; Give Aways; Inconsequential Warnings; Sympathy Letters and Requests to Help Someone; Traditional Chain Letters; Threat Chains; and Scam Chains. The Web site displays many real samples of hoaxes in each area and tells how to spot them.
There are many other excellent Web sites that provide helpful information about urban legends and hoaxes (http://www.simpsoncity.com/links/Web-Hoaxes_and_urban_legen.html). Take a little time and do some browsing. If you don't have time, then let people who do be the heralds of crisis.
You might not be able to bring an end to e-mail falsehood on the Internet, but you can at least avoid needlessly alarming your family and friends and looking pretty silly. Scripture tells us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That's good advice for Christians in an age of Internet insanity.
Dan Simpsonis the associate director for continuing education at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He serves as the Web developer for Fullers Horner Center for Lifelong Learning (http://www.fuller.edu/cll).
First Published October 2000
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