DEBUNKING URBAN MYTHS IN THE AGE OF EMAIL

By VaLerie K

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You know those email forwards you get that warn you about health hazards, give you tips for avoiding getting kidnapped or mugged, show you puppies that need adoption right now or they’ll be killed, inform you of six ways to save gas by the way you pump it, tell you about a missing little girl whom you might save by forwarding?

The iterations are endless, but the common thread is the directive to send the email to as many people as possible ASAP, because the message is so critical there isn’t time for analysis, it could save lives or save people from ruin (or whatever the claimed benefit is).

It’s so seductive, the desire to do good, and with so little effort, it almost seems silly not to.  Why not pass along messages that could possibly help someone somewhere?  Well, I’ll tell you why not – the pervasive anxiety of our times does not need any help from you!  (Or me, I must confess I’ve forwarded a hoax or two.)

Most forwarded emails from anonymous sources that urge us to pass them along RIGHT NOW are EMAIL HOAXES – emails containing either false, misleading, or outdated information that get forwarded from person to person, often being altered as they go, in whisper-down-the-alley style. Some of them circulate for years. 

No matter how clever the advice, how grave the warning or how dire the situation, control your forwarding finger for a couple seconds.  Take a breath, whatever it is can wait long enough for you to do a little recon.

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1. Check the myth-buster websites.

~ The first thing to do is go to one of the websites whose mission is to debunk cyber myths.  The two I use are Snopes and Hoaxbusters.

Go to either of these sites and search for key words from the email subject header, if the email is a known hoax it’ll pop up.

These sites are great because they give you the origin if it’s known, the history – how the email has morphed over time from its original form – and a breakdown of what is true or false with explanations and references.

It’s also fun to browse the hoax debunking sites and see what hoaxes are around and how distorted they are.  Those puppies you learned about yesterday that need immediate adoption or they’ll be killed? They may be grandparents by now.  Those clever tips to save money at the gas pump may be entirely false or overstated, and you’ll save more gas by just driving 5 mph slower.  The dangerous sun-block that killed 6 children in Oregon may be a completely false story, somehow arising from an email about using sun-block sparingly and letting your children get some vitamin D from the sun.

And get this – don’t automatically believe someone writing at the top of the email “I checked this on Snopes and it’s true”.  Hoax writers are hip to the hoax-debunking sites, and they know some people will take it on faith just reading those words!  Go check for yourself, there is no substitute.

2. Does the email start with a personal note from an unidentified person who seems to have special knowledge of or connection to the information?

~ Often there is an emotional appeal at the beginning of these forwarded emails, such as “My wife’s cousin recently died of cancer, and her doctor said if only she had followed these simple steps, she’d be alive today”, or the equally infamous personal touch “I don’t usually forward stuff like this, but…”, or the expert voice “I am a lawyer, and I wanted to pass along this advice…”

These are classic email hoax indicators to watch out for.  They somehow, amazingly, have the effect of lending credibility, but in truth the vast majority of these emails are hoaxes.

3. Does the email itself contain any way to verify the information?

~ Check the text of the email for any references or links that would verify its truth or accuracy.  Usually you’ll find it’s being presented as a word-of-mouth, pass-it-along grassroots kind of spread of information. 

Be suspicious of anything that does not offer a source or link to further information.  No matter how urgent or life-saving it may seem, if there’s no way to check it, best thing you can do for your friends is hit DELETE.

4. Find better ways to get accurate information.

~ If the info is that important, it’s worth a little of your time.  Use your favorite search engine, but be wary of where you go for info, it’s easy for any ole person to start a bogus or badly researched website called “chemicalsafety.com” or “healthhazardsunited.org”.  Don’t be fooled by names that have an official ring to them, stick with names you know (or ones we recommend & vouch for below… remember we have a professional researcher on staff!).

Big media outlets (NPR, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc) may be a good place to start (check the division related to your query, like health, science, etc), but keep in mind that big conglomerates have their own agenda, so don’t stop there.

Universities can be a good source (Harvard, MIT and such), sometimes they have special schools or projects devoted to specific issues.

For health and safety, it’s good to check science, health and medical journals, such as Science Daily, Scientific American, Nature, National Geographic, Christian Science Monitor.

Sometimes non-profits and special interest groups really hone in on topics you may be looking for, like Union of Concerned Scientists (energy and environment solutions), Environmental Working Group (chemical and environmental hazards), Dr. Andrew Weil’s site (health & nutrition), Consumer’s Union (product safety).

These are just some examples but hopefully you get the gist.

5. Don’t rely on just the internet.

~ For some topics, there could be local organizations you can turn to for accurate, up-to-date information.  For instance, if the forwarded email you’re researching is about crime or personal safety, contact your local police station and ask if they have literature or can guide you to information.  Maybe your neighborhood association has tips to avoid being the victim of crime.

Likewise, if the warning in your IN-box is about fire safety, call your local fire station.  For health issues, contact your doctor or local hospital.  An acupuncturist or chiropractor is a great source of information about health issues.  Need I go on?  Use your imagination, sometimes talking to a real live professional is the best answer.

6. Computer Viruses

~ Passing on info about computer viruses is no exception when it comes to immediate, un-researched forwarding.  It is, however, good to be informed about the real ones.  There are a lot of virus hoaxes out there that waste a lot of people’s time and spread unnecessary anxiety.

** for a description of computer virus hoaxes and how to recognize them:
http://www.rbs2.com/choax.htm

** for more information on computer virus hoaxes:
http://vil.mcafee.com/hoax.asp
http://vmyths.com/
http://www.snopes.com/computer/virus/virus.asp

** one of many resource sites that’s informative about real viruses:
http://www.udel.edu/topics/virus/oresavir.html

7. Only send information that you’ve checked out for yourself

~ Once you’ve done your own research, if you still feel the information is important enough and clear-cut enough to pass along to friends & family, create your own email with plenty of verification.  Ditch the anonymous fear-inspiring email forward that got you going in the first place.

If, however, it seems there is a lot of debate and the jury’s still out on whatever issue you’re addressing, maybe it’s best to let it go until more definitive information is available. Why spread panic about something you’re not sure of yourself?

If the task of research is too daunting, never fear!  There’s always BiG TeA PaRtY!  Since our aim is to inform and inspire around issues of environment, health and technology, and to assist you in living a sustainable and healthful lifestyle, use our search feature and see if we’ve already touched on the topic you’re concerned about.  If you don’t find info on the topic you seek, write us a note and we’ll investigate for you!

8. In conclusion, my pep talk…

~ I encourage everyone to make a vow: No more hitting the Forward button as a knee-jerk reaction, resist the urge to forward things that sound super important but you haven’t looked into.  Spread accurate and well-researched information or don’t spread it at all!

Love, VaLerie K

One Response to “Urban Myths in the age of Email [TAKE 2]”

  1. Valerie Says:

    [NOTE from VaLerie K: I had to redo this post, it was corrupting the works. when originally published, a comment was added as follows…..]

    Jayne Keller Says:
    October 22nd, 2008 at 1:17 pm e

    I will solemnly swear to try and remember to NOT forward things without checking them out, or better yet, will try to just not forward things!!! Thanks for info!

    Jayne

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