Sunday, January 11, 2009

How to Know What's True

"Repetition does not transform a lie into the truth."
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Features common to contemporary legends, myths, rumors and Internet hoaxes

The Roman Historian, Tacitus, said, "Rumor is not always wrong."  He's right.  Rumor often contains anywhere from a grain of truth to the entire truth.  You, the recipient must remember that as interesting or disturbing as this rumor might be, the content is secondary to the presence or absence of verification.  How do you verify the accuracy of the information you've just received?

This post focuses on how to become a more critical thinker; how to know if what your friend's friend just told you is true or not.  There are a few telltale signs that the story you just heard, or the email you just received, could be a legend, rumor or hoax.

  • You are one of 50 people that this was sent to.  Or the email has come from someone you don't even know.
  • The letter uses an urgent, fear-inducing tone with CAPITOL LETTERS or lots of punctuation!!!!!! to create a sense of urgency.
  • There are no verifiable sources.  Instead, there is a reference to an unnamed authority figure.  Ex: "My best friend's mom." "A friend of a friend." "This happened to someone I work with."
  • References that are provided sound good but they are uncheckable and can't be verified.  "A prominent researcher."  "A local university." "As seen on Oprah!"
  • Reference is made to a medical, research or government institution that doesn't exist. (You can easily Google these to check.)
  • There is technical or biological jargon that sounds scholarly and real - or is it?
  • They insist that it's true, honest, or real.  "This is not a scam!"  "This really happened!"   "This is not a hoax!"
  • There is a plea for you to forward the message to everyone you know and sometimes there is a threat that something bad will happen if you don't.
Most legends and rumors will contain recurring themes of the things we most fear, like losing our children or becoming victims of ruthless criminals.  Often these fears are those for which there are no easy remedies.

Legends and rumors always have a moral message; that something, someone, some business or some group is bad, that people are evil, and that you should never let your guard down or let your children out of your sight.  Legends and rumors speak to our general mistrust of:

  • Large corporations like food and beverage companies.  It's often suggested that we shouldn't count on them to be all that careful about what goes into whatever they're preparing because, to them, profit, or the bottom line, is more important than consumer safety.
  • Foreigners, including their pets, food and any other products of foreign countries.  These are often seen as suspicious.  Often the country mentioned is one with which we have had a recent military conflict.
  • Other populations of people who we have decided, either consciously or subconsciously, are "bad" people, such as men, teenagers or drug users.
  • Technology.  Who among us hasn't cursed the ghost in the machine?

This might be a hoax, what should I do?

Start by applying the six elements of basic journalism and common sense: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why.  Almost all legends, rumors, myths and hoaxes lack one or more of these elements and won't stand the test.

Who:  Most contemporary legends rely on "a friend" or "a local expert" or "a spokesperson" as the authority.  Ask yourself:  Who is the friend?  How do they know about this?  Is there an eyewitness?

What:  Some legends and rumors have an element of unbelievability to them.  Ask yourself:  Is this how people would really behave or react in this situation?  Does this make sense? Remember that one individual's personal story is not scientific evidence.

Where:  Some legends are told as something that happened, "Right here in this town."  Ask yourself:  Exactly where did this happen?  Are there dates?  Did local media cover it?

When:  Some stories sound very much like something you heard ten years ago.  No way these things could be happening this often to this many people for so many years without your reading about it in a more legitimate place.  Ask yourself:  Did other media cover this story?  Is there a written record of it anywhere that I can see for verification?

How:  Does the rumor defy the laws of physics or stretch your sensibilities?  Depending on the content of the rumor, knowing how factory assembly lines function, or knowing a little basic biology will easily invalidate the story.  Ask yourself:  Does this sound unbelievable?  Is this really how a particular machine, or bodily system, works?  Is it technically possible?  Is it prohibitively expensive?  Does it require exceptional skills of some type, like lock picking or tightrope walking?

Why:  There is always a motive behind the deliberate spread of misinformation. This is called an agenda.  Ask yourself:  Who benefits if this is true? Who is hurt if this is true?

Search Engines

It's always a good idea to go to your favorite search engine and do a little research of your own before possibly passing along misinformation.  However, it is also important to remember that search engines can be out-of-date and may connect to a high number of rogue or inactive sites. Search results are also not listed in order of accuracy, but in order by who gets the most hits, the computer's idea of "match relevance," and who paid the most to have their website pop up in the first 10 listed.

It is estimated that there are 3,800 new websites and 600,000 now pages added to the Internet every day.  None of this information is peer reviewed or fact checked or in any way approved for publication.  No organization currently rates or approves websites for accuracy.  The Internet is totally self-regulated, pure free speech, including all the opinion, rumor spreading and misinformation that accompanies that freedom.  Know this going in so you can remain critical of the content you're reading.

With that in mind, here's how to use your computer's search engines to verify information you just received.  Go the start page of your preferred search engine.  Start by typing the name of the organization or expert that is named (if there is one named) in the rumor you're trying to verify.  Initially scan your search results by looking at the web addresses, not the colorful names and titles.  Websites with .gov or .edu in their address are probably better places to start than commercial websites.  A commercial website may simply reinforce the rumor as true, or offer to sell you a product that will protect you from the harm mentioned in the rumor.  Oh, what a tangled web!

If the rumor mentions a specific health condition or product scare, search Internet sites of reputable health organizations or foundations that you've heard of that are devoted to this condition.  Or find the website for the product manufacturer.  For example, if you want to know if drinking red wine is good for the health of your heart, go to The American Heart Association's website before you go to Cheap Charlie's Wine Emporium.

You can also go straight to one of the excellent websites that catalog these hoaxes.  There are many wonderful Internet sites that are devoted to researching these stories so that you don't have to.   All good to know.