Magazine article Information Today

What to Do about Internet Hoaxes

Magazine article Information Today

What to Do about Internet Hoaxes

Article excerpt

If you've been on the Internet for any length of time, you've probably received some alarming e-mails from well-meaning friends and relatives about a dire threat to your health or safety. You've probably seen similar warnings on blogs and in online discussion groups and chat rooms.

Here are some examples of these alarms:

* If you don't disinfect canned goods before opening them, you can get poisoned by residue from deadly rat droppings.

* A gang of kidnappers at malls and amusement parks are abducting children, taking them into bathrooms, drugging them, dyeing their hair, changing their clothing, and smuggling them through exits disguised as 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.

This Is Not a Hoax

You may know that warnings such as these are almost always hoaxes. The chances of these warnings being false increase if they include lots of words in capital letters and sentences that end in exclamation marks, if the warning otherwise claims to be urgent, if the words "this is not a hoax" are included, if you're asked to forward the warning to everyone you know, or if the person sending you the warning is a stranger.

The 14-year-olds, or people who think the same way as they do, are busy doing Internet mischief to feel important. It's the online equivalent of spray painting graffiti on the side of a school at night. But plenty of sophisticated people can and do get taken in by these ruses, and time is wasted in trying to respond and reassure.

One tactic is simply to direct people to one of the many Web sites designed to debunk hoaxes, rumors, gossip, urban legends, old wives' tales, scams, and other bad information.

The best-and best known-of these sites is Snopes.com (http://www.snopes .com). The site was set up in 1995 (just as the Internet was becoming popular) by David and Barbara Mikkelson, a husband-and-wife team from Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The site is named for the family of characters who appear throughout the novels of William Faulkner, with 'snopes' initially being the handle that 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, an excellent example of Internet entrepreneurship that also serves a valuable societal purpose. The Mikkelsons make it clear that they don't expect visitors to accept them as the ultimate authority on any given topic, but they do inelude references to support their conclusions in debunking false claims. …

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