Tips To Identify Hoaxes, Urban Legends, & Scaremongering
The Internet is chock full of scary urban legends, shocking hoaxes, and baseless claims of incoming horrors that continue to be mistaken for truth and passed along. Some of them might be more or less harmless, but sometimes they can divert attention away from real and actual problems that aren't getting the attention they deserve. Some of the misinformation can also harm people by misleading them into thinking they're safe when they're not, or needlessly stress them out by making them think they're in danger when they're not.
So, here are a few tips and guidelines based on years of experience to help you get better at identifying and investigating potential urban legends, hoaxes, and scaremongering in order to determine their truthfulness.
Table of Contents
- Things to look for that should make you start asking questions
- Places and ways to research
- More things to remember
Things to look for that should make you start asking questions
While none of these are absolute 100% guarantees of detecting falsehood, they are elements that appear frequently in viral hoaxes and urban legends, and many stories containing them will often turn out to have been fabricated or at the very least greatly exaggerated or distorted. So any time you see these elements, take them as an indication that you should do some research on the story or claim you see before passing it along.
Does the story have a moral attached to it, or is a moral implied? For example, an old chestnut has it that a woman went around to several different tanning salons to get the perfect tan before her wedding, only to die shortly afterward because it cooked her insides. The implied moral is "don't be so vain!" or "modern vanity is so awful!"
Does it try really hard to tug on your heartstrings? For example, does it involve the untimely death of a child or teenager? Or is it about a dying youth or youngster? Or is it about some "Christmas miracle" or the unlikely kindness of a stranger?
Does it sound like something from fiction written by an amateur or hack writer? Was a pretty girl kidnapped by a total stranger out of nowhere? Does it claim that some kind of apocalypse or dystopia is just around the corner, never mind the logistics that would be required to make it happen? Does it involve some sinister plot that sounds like something a b-film villain would get up to?
Is it really lurid and gross? For example, does the story claim that someone found something horrible in a fast food meal, or that horrifying ingredients are being used in fast food? Or does it claim that someone got some horrifying infection or parasite visiting a foreign country? Or how about pets meeting horrible fates in gruesome ways? Or anything else with a yuck or squick factor?
Does it involve dangerous animals or objects where they shouldn't be? The story of the tarantula-filled cactus is a classic example, as is the tale of toilet-invading spiders. And then there's the one about HIV-laced syringes being attached to gas pumps.
Is it about a public figure doing or saying something really outrageous or scandalous? Many people will take any excuse to throw dirt on a celebrity, politician, or pundit they feel crabby about, so any claim that someone like this has said or done something outrageous or scandalous should always be carefully researched before being passed on.
Does it involve someone trying to pass outrageous legislation or laws? A lot of people have tried and continue to try and pass a lot of really outrageous legislation, but many alleged bills on the Internet have been completely made up, or the contents of actual bills have been grossly misinterpreted. It never hurts to do some research into these kinds of claims.
Does it sound like a conspiracy theory? Does it claim that some group is secretly scheming to destroy, overthrow, or subjugate everyone else? Or does it claim that some terrible event was secretly orchestrated by someone other than the apparent perpetrator/s? If so, it's probably a bunch of hooey. If you trace down most conspiracy theories to their sources, you'll often find that they were fabricated for malicious purposes, or for fame and/or money, or came from someone someone trying to force something into a pre-decided conclusion.
Does it involve a bully, snob, bigot, or other nasty person being humiliated, learning a lesson, or "seeing the light?" Very often, stories of these types turn out to be fiction written to bolster morale, or as revenge or victory fantasies. Rarely is there much, if any truth to them.
Are specific names, dates, and locations absent? Does that story claiming some girl was kidnapped fail to mention who she was, when it happened, and where it took place? Does a story report that "the government" is plotting some sinister action, yet fail to mention a specific branch of the government, let alone any specific names? Does it claim that "scientists discovered that..." but fail to actually name any scientists, let alone when and where the discovery took place?
Does it it appeal to your desire to believe in the strange, miraculous, and/or magical? For example, many of the aforementioned "Christmas miracle" stories, numerous mermaid hoaxes, the countless fake alien craft videos, and various other hoaxes and pseudoscientific reports that purport similar things.
Again, these items are not rock solid 100% indicators that a story or claim is false, but are simply things that if you see them, should prompt you into doing more research before passing it along.
Places and ways to research
Check Snopes.com. Many of the rumors and scare claims you find buzzing around have been going around in some form for decades now, and Snopes has them covered. Plus, their ever-vigilant webmasters tackle new rumors, and they have a messageboard where users can post and discuss rumors and claims.
Look for a source: Do a websearch for the relevant names, locations, or other details. Can you find a news site or other trustworthy source to back it up? Or are all of your results Tumblr pages, Facebook posts, and other social networking sites? If the only sources for the story or claim are blogs, social network sites, or image macros, it's probably fake. If you find an article reporting on what a proposed bill will allegedly do, go to Congress.gov to read the contents of the bill for yourself and see if it really says what people say it does.
Look at who is talking about it. If you did find a source that wasn't a blog, social networking site, or image macro, what did you find? Does it all go back to some fringe site or conspiracy theorist's website? Is the primary source someone known for being a little... out there? Is it something that, if it were real, that any number of major news outlets should be saying something about (even if it is buried under the latest celebrity gossip), yet aren't? All of these are marks against the story or claim's authenticity.
If it does include names, look them up. Some hoaxers are savvy enough to include names and locations to their pieces to make them sound more credible. Sometimes you'll find that the scientists who supposedly made a groundbreaking discovery don't exist, or that the town or city something allegedly happened in does exist, but the dearth of local news coverage on the alleged event suggests it probably never happened. Sometimes you'll find that something actually did happen, but it didn't happen quite the way it was claimed.
More things to remember
Hoaxes and urban legends frequently mix fact and fiction. Whether it's done intentionally or unintentionally, mixing truth in with the falsehoods gives the falsehoods greater believability - people tend to assume that if Facts A and B are true, then C is probably true, too. For example, various copypasta lists of deeds done by politicians frequently mix up actual events with things that have been exaggerated or completely made up. One bit of scarelore claims that colored stickers are being put onto mailboxes (true) by FEMA to identify those considered enemies of the New World Order (false).
Statistics are often used misleadingly. Statistics (especially if cited) can lend any claim an air of credibility, but not all statistics come from properly-conducted studies, and some of them may be irrelevant due to the time or place a study was conducted. Investigations should be made into when, where, and how the these statistics were derived.
People can work wonders with image editing programs. Back in 2001, a photograph of a man allegedly standing atop one of the Twin Towers with a plane coming toward him went viral. In fact, the plane had been edited in. Many photos from Worth 1000 (a site that hosts image editing contests) have been nabbed and passed around as depicting something real by unscrupulous individuals.
Many outrageous or "clever" church signs floating around the Internet were created with an online church sign generator, which places text entered by a user over a blank church sign. Likewise, there's also a generator for various fast food outlets. Also, it takes very little effort for image editors to erase the text on, say, a t-shirt, business sign, protest sign, or handwritten message to the Internet and fill it back in with whatever they want.
Real, unaltered photos can also be used to mislead. It isn't at all uncommon for someone to find a particularly striking or unusual photo and create a story to go along with it. For example, one particularly gruesome set of photos of an arthropod bite that turns necrotic been variously claimed to be the work of a brown recluse, a black widow, a violin spider, a camel spider, or a centipede. (In reality, the creature responsible has never been identified.) One set of "heartwarming" photos allegedly show a litter of piglets adopted by a tiger, when in reality the whole thing was set up as an attraction for guests at a zoo. In another case, photos of an alleged dead mermaid made the rounds for awhile (being claimed to have been found in various locations), when in truth it was was a very convincing fake created by an artist.
Certain commercials can be used to mislead. Occasionally, some companies have used viral marketing schemes created to look like home videos or footage shot by amateurs - such as one UFO video that made the rounds awhile back. Because these videos don't immediately look like they were created as fiction, many people assume that what they're seeing is real.
Some mockumentaries have been taken for real. Mockumentaries are created to entertain, with actors, staged events, and special effects used to create nonexistent scenarios or even creatures and present them in documentary form as if they really did exist. Occasionally, a few people apparently missed where these were supposed to be fiction and took them to be actual fact. One notable example is Animal Planet's Mermaids: The Body Found. The mockumentary, along with a website designed to look like it had been seized and shut down by the US Department of Justice and Homeland Security, had a lot of people convinced that a body really had been found and that there really had been a coverup.
And so can animated gifsets. People tend to assume that the text shown on animated gifsets always accurately represents what was actually said by the person or people they show, and thus a few gifsets created with fictitious text over them have been taken for real.
Yes, some hoaxes do claim they're not hoaxes. A good number of them are written with statements that they aren't mere rumors, hoaxes, or urban legends simply because hoaxers know that there are people gullible enough to believe it.
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