Saturday, January 10, 2009

Is It an Urban Legend, Rumor or Hoax?

"There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made."  -Richard Feynman


Sometimes it is a thin line that separates a true legend from a rumor.  An urban legend is a story that may have started with a grain of truth, but then is retold, with embellishments, so often that it has become bigger than life, more fiction than fact.  They are generally a narrative account set in the recent past, with characters, a plot and elements of caution, horror or morality.  Urban legends, or contemporary legends as they are sometimes called, start as rumors before developing a life of their own.

Studying how these stories get retold and changed, and why they spread so fast, far and often, has become its own field of anthropology.  These legends refuse to die, reappearing in emails, on message boards, around the lunch table and even in the news.  Because of how they morph, it is often impossible to trace the legend back to where it started, and consequently, no way to verify the facts.

The content of urban legends is all over the map, yet several common elements do show up again and again.  As most urban legends prey on our fears and insecurities they will contain some combination of horror, embarrassment, warning and even humor.  They often have some unexpected twist that is outlandish but just plausible enough to be accepted as truth.


Rumors are different from legends in that they are about a specific person, product, company or organization.  These often start as misheard news stories, misunderstood information about a product or an event, or a journalistic error.  They can even be a deliberate attempt to discredit a person or company.


The difference between a legend and a hoax is that one is a story and the other is a promise that you'll get something if you follow the directions.  A hoax will promise you a case of Coca Cola every week for a month, or maybe just an entertaining video clip that will appear after you forward that email on to a zillion of your closest friends.  Maybe, if you have enough friends to forward this to, you'll even receive an answer to your most intimate wish or prayer.  Hoaxes are similar to urban legends or rumors in that they enjoy heavy electronic circulation and are also not true.

Chain Letters

There are emails that ask you to forward them on to everyone in your address book.  There is often a general yet catchy subject line like, "Danger!"  You get drawn in by this hook and open the letter only to learn about all the terrible things that will happen to you if you break the chain, a chain that has apparently been unbroken for years or decades.  Those unfortunate few who did break the chain, well, you don't even want to know what horrors befell them for this transgression.

Now, with information shared so quickly through electronic media, there seem to be more of these legends, rumors and hoaxes around than ever before, many in chain letter form with the plea to send it on.  A day seldom goes by that we don't receive a warning from a friend about another friend's experience with unmarked police cars, a dying child's last wish, product safety or the promise of receiving something for free.  And naturally, a request that you forward this information along to everyone you know.


Spam is bulk or unsolicited email.  So numerous are these unwelcome letters that they have been known to slow mail servers down to a crawl and even cause them to crash.  These are business solicitations promising low-priced pharmaceuticals, a great deal on a mortgage loan, or cheap Rolex watches.  Just click through to their website and see for yourself.

Ever wondered how you got on this person's mailing list in the first place?  If you've done business online it's possible that your email address was sold.  There are also programs that generate random email addresses; a certain percentage of these are "live" and might get a response.

Finally it's been said that spammers take email addresses from the headers of forwarded hoaxes and chain letters.  There really are people who forward chain letters to everyone in their address book, and by doing that they are passing along hundreds of "live" email addresses - just what spammers are looking for.  It's even been suggested that spammers may start some of these rumor and hoax chain letters specifically for the purpose of harvesting live email addresses.

E-mail Tracking Programs

One common lie that runs through many Internet hoaxes is the claim of "email tracking programs" that will keep track of your forwards.  You know, you'll receive $5 for every person you forward this to, $2 for every person they forward this to, and so on.  This technology doesn't exist with the sophistication necessary to do what that spammed letter said it will do. You can test this one yourself.  Instead of forwarding that email and annoying 20 friends in order to get a check from Bill Gates, just ask the person who sent you the letter if they received a check from Mr. Gates.  They haven't, and neither will you.

Who spread this stuff?

There are many answers to this question.  Generally, rumors and hoaxes are spread by intelligent, caring people motivated by a genuine interest in protecting others.  They have misheard or misremembered something, or simply don't know the information contained in the email they just forwarded to you is not accurate.  Often our family, friends and co-workers send us this misinformation.  These are people who we know to be reliable.  If they said it happened to a friend of their friend you don't doubt them.

Additionally, the culture of drug use is one perpetuated through oral tradition.  Most of us learn a little about drugs and alcohol in school, but the richness of the culture, the subtleties and nuances, are all passed orally in stories told by your friend's brother or your college roommate.  This method makes for some great stories, but as anyone who has played the "telephone game" knows, this method of information transfer is fertile breeding ground for misinformation.

Some legends and rumors started as simple jokes that someone personalized to make more interesting.  Everyone who heard the embellished story repeated it as fact, or news.  "Did you hear what happened to Bob on vacation last month?"

Many rumors about drugs have been perpetuated by ill-informed, anti-drug educators.  In this case, misinformation is presented to serve as a warning or to scare kids away from drug use. Some know that what they're saying is inaccurate, others actually believe it to be true.

Some scary rumors about commercial products may have been started by competitors who wanted to turn people away from a popular product or company to hopefully increase their own sales.  There are a few documented and prosecuted cases of this happening in the not-so-distant past.  All that is required is a story with enough elements of truth to seem real.  We've heard about product tampering so it's a small step to naming the company and the product that is being tempered with, even if it's not true.

On a smaller scale, some of these hoaxes and chain letters have been started as a way of harassing another person.  For example, suppose that Jane is in the middle of a malicious divorce.  In order to make her soon-to-be-ex-husband's life a little more miserable she sends out a letter to everyone she knows that says, "Send jokes to little Johnny Piper at [--insert ex-husband's email address here--] as he's trying to get into the Book of World Records.  Forward this to everyone you know!!"

The Cost

Let's assume that everyone gets one hoax email at work each day and spends one minute reading it and deleting it.  Based on an hourly wage of $15, multiplied by 1/60th of an hour and 50 million people, the cost to US business would be $12.5 million - for that single email.

Now let's guesstimate that 5% of the people that have read this hoax are going to pass it along to everyone in their address book.  Again, being conservative, of the 50 million people who got the letter, 2.5 million will forward it to another 10 people and many of them will forward it on to another ten people and so on.  With this type of geometric progression the letter will never die.

Now multiply this by the actual number of hoax or chain email you get, which is probably much higher than one per day.  All of this has to be processed through our mail servers, which can be significantly slowed down by high volumes of mail and can even grind to a halt.  

It's been estimated that from 40% - 60% of all mail traveling over the Internet is unsolicited bulk email (Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems, 2003)  Another source estimates that there are 10.4 million spam emails sent every minute worldwide. (Business Week Online, 2003)

But the real cost, especially with misinformation about drugs and alcohol, is to our health and the health of our children.  Because of the widespread nature of drug rumors and their incredible persistence, a large percentage of what we think we know about drugs and alcohol, legal beverages and illegal drug activity simply isn't correct. The urban legend gets such widespread acceptance that people stop questioning it.

Consider that right now, in this time where an amazing amount of accurate information is available to us, literally at our fingertips, we are also overwhelmed with what seems to be the same amount of misinformation.  Maybe more.  The key, then, is knowing how to discern one from the other.  How to sift fact from fiction.