Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends and Their Busters

Category: Reference

Guess what? Mark Zuckerberg is giving millions of dollars to Facebook users who repost an announcement of the giveaway. Bill Gates is giving $5,000 to every Facebook user who shares a link. Mr. Rogers always wore a long-sleeved sweater to hide the tattoos he got as a Marine Corps sniper. And Amazon's new Petlexa can understand your pet's bark or meow, and place orders for what they want. Read on to find out how (and why) nonsense like this spreads like wildfire online...

Who You Gonna Call?

"What… Mr. Rogers wasn't a Marine sniper? Oh, he was a Navy SEAL?" None of these statements is true, of course. They are examples of scams, hoaxes, and urban legends that circulate via email and social media. The Internet is awash with misinformation for a number of reasons.

Some hoaxsters are just having fun, like the originator of Mr. Rogers’ false bio. Others are doing it for likes, or upvotes, or other social media “currency” that boosts their online visibility. See this roundup of the best April Fools Pranks of 2017. But some are dangerous, like the Bill Gates “forward this link” ploy; people who click on that link may be vulnerable to surreptitious downloads of malware.

Still others are politically motivated. Fake news websites proliferated during the 2016 presidential campaign, crossing the line from satire to outright lies and disinformation.

Urban legends and hoaxes online

There is so much misinformation on the Internet that some people have made careers out of debunking it. Barbara and David Mikkelson launched Snopes in 1995; today the site gets over 300,000 visitors per day. (Be sure to check their Hot 50 to see some of most intriguing items currently making the online rounds.) David Emery earns his daily bread at About.com’s Urban Legends page. And since 1994, Scambusters has tackled messages that can cost you money, such as “miracle cures,” “insider stock tips,” and even “virtual kidnappings.”

The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey started her column, “What Was Fake On The Interenet” in May, 2014; she gave it up in December, 2015, when science convinced her that people cling to their cherished untruths like barnacles to a ship’s hull. Ms. Dewey explains, in her farewell column, that many hoaxes are purposefully perpetrated to drive traffic to hoaxters’ Web sites. The types of hoaxes reveal the mindsets of the people who are most likely to believe and share them.

Unintended Consequences...

One of the most famous cases of a real person's story that morphed into an urban legend involved Craig Shergold. In 1989, Craig was a 10 year old boy hospitalized with a brain tumor. A family friend began a campaign to get him into the Guiness Book of Records for receiving the most post cards, and before long it started spreading by email. Cards began to pour in by the MILLIONS, year after year. Even though Craig was cured in 1991 and his family made public appeals for the cards to stop, their pleas were no match for the power and longevity of the email chain letter. The Craig Shergold chain letter morphed and spawned a wave of bogus "sick child" emails that have caused untold grief to other families who were the targets of pranksters, as well as financial harm to charities such as the Make A Wish Foundation.

The people who forward, repost and retweet these stories without engaging a single brain cell are a marketer’s dream. They’ll believe anything that sounds outrageous, tugs on the heartstrings, or confirms their prejudices. And once they find a source of confirmation, they’ll keep coming back for more. Needless to say, it isn’t hard to sell just about anything to such an audience.

Of course, there’s also money to be made by debunking hoaxes. There are many debunking websites in addition to those mentioned above. Hoaxbusters,org, Hoax-slayers.com, UrbanLegendsOnline.com, and dozens more sites promise to set your cranky uncle straight. But the people who believe these stories don’t go searching for proof they’re wrong, and the rest of us are starting to give up on the believers.

Google has announced a crackdown on fake news websites, cutting them off from the advertising programs that make it profitable for them to continue. Facebook said in December they were rolling out tools that make it easier to report hoaxes and fake news. Supposedly, users will be prompted to click a warning that a story may be fake. But I tested a couple of well-known bogus stories, and they were posted to my page with no warnings.

I've long wished that Internet service providers or those who operate webmail services would implement some sort of filter on outgoing or incoming email. Gmail and others warn about potential malware and phishing attempts. Why can't they show a warning when a well-known hoax, fake news story, or urban legend is about to be sent or received?

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends and Their Busters"

(See all 30 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Al S
03 Apr 2017

I find it astonishing that on the right side of many websites. MLB, MSN and on Facebook itself, there are headlines You wont believe say good bye to This or that star implying that they have died even has their year of birth and current day of death, clicking on that link takes you to long winded sites to purchase wonder drugs etc.

Even on this page a big headline About Obamas Last Felony. So many people still forward the lies on Facebook that often were discounted 25 years earlier as fact


Posted by:

MikieB
03 Apr 2017

But Bob, I thought that you couldn't lie on the Internet. After all, Al Gore set it up that way.
Okay, this is "Fake News" anyway.
Whatever shall we do!?


Posted by:

Daniel Knorowski
03 Apr 2017

PETLEXA is a primary source of information for a certain newcomer to D.C.(Not Direct Current).


Posted by:

Brian
03 Apr 2017

Sadly, Snopes long ago ceased to be a reliable arbiter of what is true and false. They have a clear political agenda.


Posted by:

Richard Dengrove
03 Apr 2017


Snopes far to the left? I thought Snopes was far to the right.


Posted by:

Rick
03 Apr 2017

Hoax Busters
After 17 years of hoax-busting, the time has come to call it a day. It has been our pleasure to serve you since 1999, and we are honored to have been one of the trusted sources that you chose for hoax debunking. But all good things must come to an end, and Hoax Busters is no different. As of January 1, 2017, we are officially retired. The tenor of hoaxes has changed through the years. These days, it's all about conspiracy theories and political misinformation. Those types of hoaxes are spread by folks whose only interest is in reading news that conforms to their point of view. No matter the actual facts, people will believe what they want to, and truth is irrelevant. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online. He explained that institutional distrust is so high, and cognitive bias so strong, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it's demonstrably fake. Fortunately, there are several other excellent hoax-debunking websites from which to choose. In no particular order, we recommend: Hoax-Slayer, TruthOrFiction.com, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Washington Post Fact Checker, ThatsFake.com, ThatsNonsense.com, and, of course, Snopes.com. If you're one of those that believe that Snopes is not trustworthy, or has a left-leaning liberal bias, please read THIS. Thank you to all that have visited Hoax Busters through the years. We truly appreciate the confidence that you placed in us. It is important to note that we do not have, and never did have, a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media-type of page, so any Hoax Busters-labeled page is not ours or sanctioned by us. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in "The Day is Done," we shall now fold our tents and silently steal away.


Posted by:

Charles A. Parker
03 Apr 2017

Great article. So many people believe everything they read on the internet. I'll be posting a link to this on my facebook page in hopes that they will believe your article.


Posted by:

Kayle Archey
03 Apr 2017

Why don't you post a share link to facebook. Maybe people will listen to you. I sure would have shared this one if there were a link. Thanks for the informative articles.


Posted by:

tristram
03 Apr 2017

Rick (Hoax Busters) wrote:
"If you're one of those that believe that Snopes is not trustworthy, or has a left-leaning liberal bias, please read THIS."

To read "THIS" you have to go to hoaxbusters.org and find the link for "THIS".


Posted by:

Kurt H. Schindler
04 Apr 2017

When people die, the dead person does not care and is not bothered by the aftermath. But other people around him or her have a hard time and share concern. Sort of just like the way it is with a stupid person.


Posted by:

Jay R
04 Apr 2017

"I said, Bob, you're going to drive me to drinkin'
If you don't stop quoting that Hot Rod Lincoln"

Love your stuff.


Posted by:

Michael
04 Apr 2017

Very good article, Bob!

Why some people think that Snopes.com is so far left is because the "right" is easier to catch with their pants down around their ankles. Every time someone calls Snopes "left", it's proof they are doing a great job providing facts and truth. (Just like Bob Rankin presents facts and truth!)

I'll trust Snopes loooong before I'll trust many others.


Posted by:

Neville
04 Apr 2017

I am not surprised that so many people believe the unbelievable.
As a Australian with a science degree I am stunned at the number of Americans who apparently believe in Creationism.


Posted by:

kevin
04 Apr 2017

Here is the part of Hoaxbusters.org's goodbye message that had a separate link marked "this":

"People that have a hard time accepting the truth have a hard time accepting the findings of Snopes.com. The main reason that Snopes is accused of bias by some folks is that facts have a notoriously liberal bias. The attacks against Snopes are prompted by the religious and political leanings of the attackers. A large number of hoaxes are aimed at (appealing to) people of the religious and political right. Then, when the hoax has been exposed, they become upset and defensive, attacking the messenger, not the message.

Snopes is officially known as the "Urban Legends Reference Pages." That's "reference," as in they research stuff and list their reference material for all the world to see. They have, through the years, become the "tell-all final word" in the hoax-debunking world. That is because of their ability to thoroughly research and document most hoax questions sent their way. The Snopes story is not a secret and has always been available to the public. The story about how the Mikkelsons met and founded their site jibes with interviews seen in other print media. Plus, through the years, they have been vetted by just about every form of major media (press, radio and TV).

Folks that question Snopes generally lean to the conservative side ideologically. Getting at the truth is not something reserved for the right or the left, though. Being apolitical is exactly what has made Snopes the respected source for hoax debunking that it is today."


Posted by:

CtPaul
04 Apr 2017

Rick wrote: "Hoax Busters
After 17 years of hoax-busting, the time has come to call it a day. It has been our pleasure to serve you since 1999, and we are honored to have been one of the trusted sources that you chose for hoax debunking. But all good things must come to an end, and Hoax Busters is no different. As of January 1, 2017, we are officially retired."

Rick, your post is so unlike 99% of the posts here that it caused me to wonder if you and/or your post might be a hoax.

I admit that I have never heard of "Hoax Busters" - probably because I can generally tell when some self-serving idiots are promoting mis-information. My "default" belief about people and websites who promise to tell you the "TRUTH" is the same as it is with religion... most are barefaced liars (with the exception of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Economist (UK).
OK, I do enjoy reading Mother Jones too, but I take it with a grain of salt!

As far as Bob Rankin's website... every so often I read an article that seems to be the result of financial patronage, but I have also found some valuable info here too, so I keep coming back!


Posted by:

Unitary
04 Apr 2017

My personal experience since the early days of the Internet is that the most outrageous and most harmful fake news and hoaxes in English are not published on some marginal websites but on the websites of major American publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and the CNN.

The persistent barrage of fake news in the so-called “mainstream media" is motivated by political and racist bias.

These fake news are particularly injurious because even intelligent people tend to believe malicious fabrications when they read them in an article written by, e.g., Thomas Freedman and published in the “prestigious” New York Times.


Posted by:

Hardie Johnson
04 Apr 2017

Alt.folklore.urban was an early newsgroup devoted to disproving a lot of junk on the internet. To be a valid proof you had to post supporting evidence and facts. Sadly, this is lacking in the world today.


Posted by:

Al S
04 Apr 2017

Neville wrote.
I am not surprised that so many people believe the unbelievable.
As a Australian with a science degree I am stunned at the number of Americans who apparently believe in Creationism. Does Giving you a Science Degree give you the right to debunk Creationism?
Albert Einstein is far more qualified than you in regard to science and one of his well known Statements is, "God does not play dice with the Universe." Actually he was not very religious but inferred that God left the Universe to develop itself. If God Created the Universe, then let it develop, everything since the big bang is Creationism, including yourself,


Posted by:

Robert
04 Apr 2017

Fake news, is that another democratic way to say its a dam lie


Posted by:

Walter
07 Apr 2017

Of course some people will believe anything. Kyle Irving of the NBA thinks the earth is flat, even though he has flown all over the US for games. People usually believe what they want to believe (as long as they agree with it) and will not even look at the facts if spoon fed to them.


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