If you’ve been on the
Internet for any period of time, you’ve no doubt received alarming forwarded
emails from well-meaning friends and relatives about dire threats to your
health or safety. You’ve probably seen similar warnings on blogs and in online
discussion groups and chat rooms.
Examples of these alarming
· If you don’t disinfect canned
goods before opening them, you can get poisoned by residue from deadly rat
· A gang of kidnappers at malls and
amusement parks are abducting children by taking them into bathrooms, drugging
them, dyeing their hair, changing their clothing, and smuggling them out exits,
having disguised them as members of the opposite sex.
· If you use pancake mix beyond its
expiration date, you and your family members risk a life-threatening allergic
reaction from mold that can grow in it.
· Beware of car thieves in parking
lots who render their victims unconscious with ether-laced perfume.
As you may know, warnings like
these are almost always hoaxes. The chances of a warning being untrue increase
if it includes lots of words in capital letters and sentences that end in
exclamation points, if it otherwise claims to be urgent, if it includes the
words “This is not a hoax,” if instructions in it tell you to forward it to
everyone you know, and if you don’t know the person sending you the warning.
The 14-year-olds are behind all
this, or people who think like 14-year-olds, people who do Internet mischief to
make themselves feel important. It’s the online equivalent of spray-painting
graffiti at night. But some otherwise-sophisticated people can and do get taken
in by these ruses, while others feel they have to find time to respond and
One good way to respond is by
simply directing people to one or more of the many Web sites designed to debunk
hoaxes, rumors, gossip, urban legends, old wives’ tales, scams, and other
The best, and best known, of these
sites is Snopes.com (www.snopes.com),
which has been up and running for more than 10 years now. David and Barbara
Mikkelson, a husband-and-wife team from Thousand Oaks, CA, set it up in 1995,
just as the Internet was becoming popular, and named it after the family of
characters who appear throughout the novels of William Faulkner, “snopes” being
the handle David Mikkelson used when he first became active in Usenet
discussion groups in the late 1980s.
Snopes.com is supported by
relatively unobtrusive pop-under ads and by donations, making it an excellent
example of Internet entrepreneurship that also serves a valuable societal
purpose. The Mikkelsons indicate clearly that they don’t expect visitors to
accept them as the ultimate authority on any given topic. But they include
references to support their conclusions in debunking false claims.
Other Web sites serving a similar
purpose that are worth a visit include Don’t Spread That Hoax! (<span
and Hoax-Slayer (www.hoax-slayer.com).
Still more sites have been active in the past but haven’t been updated lately,
a common Web phenomenon. These include the U.S. Department of Energy’s
and Common E-mail Hoaxes (www.3oddballz.com/hoaxes).
If you go to Computer Hoaxes (<span
you’ll see just an ad page having nothing to do with the subject, brought to
you by an outfit that bought the domain name of the now-defunct site, which is
a bit of a hoax in itself.
One of the most common Internet
hoaxes involves false warnings about computer viruses, and the most actively
updated sites that debunk such claims are from the vendors of antivirus
software. Symantec’s page is at <span
McAfee’s is at vil.mcafee.com/hoax.asp.
Some people suspect that the
antivirus-software companies themselves sometimes cook up virus hoaxes, and
even viruses, to boost sales. But there has never been any evidence of this,
making it one more Internet urban legend.
Internet hoaxes go with the
territory. They’re part of Internet culture, one side of the Internet’s sordid
underbelly. Although the Internet is a revolutionary communications medium that
can reveal useful, factual information you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere,
you have to be careful.
Because it’s so easy to put
information on the Net, it’s also easy to find false information. College
library sites lead the way in helping users evaluate the reliability of any
information they find online. A good one is A Guide to Critical Thinking About
What You See on the Web from Ithaca College (<span
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or members.home.net/reidgold.