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How to spot an urban legend

The messages always suggest an impending apocalypse.

BEWARE!!!!

PHONE SCAM!

NEVER DO THIS!!!!!!!!!

They drop into my in-box about once a month, usually from my mom. She forwards them with good intentions, but like the dozens of people who pass the warnings on to her and whose names adorn the fwd:fwd:fwd:fwd:fwd:fwd list like Internet castaways, she never bothers to check them out.

Better safe than sorry, right?

Not really.

My sister-in-law wrote back after I had debunked the last dire warning and said she appreciated having one fewer thing to worry about.

That’s the problem with urban legends: We already have enough stress in our lives, but those well-intended messages forwarded along blindly just amp up our anxiety.

Anxiety Everywhere

Who knew I had to worry about someone calling and pretending to gain access to my phone? Who knew the government had secretly installed microphones in smoke detectors and was listening to all my conversations? Who knew that dryer sheets would coat the lint catcher of my dryer and release toxic chemicals that could burn my lungs?

Nobody knew, because those things aren’t true. And yet people believe, just as they believe so much other debunked bunk.

A few years ago, I received a “news” article headlined “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children.” It included a diatribe warning of the work of the devil and the threats to Christianity. The article was, in fact, real. It was from the humor magazine The Onion, satirizing the very types of people who were writing and forwarding these types of messages.

It took me about five minutes of searching to figure that out. It’s not hard, especially with sites like snopes.com and truthorfiction .com.

But you have to be proactive. You have to be skeptical. You have to stand up to the fear-mongers.

If you can do that, you might even slay an urban legend or two along the way.

A Seven-Step Plan

Most urban legends follow a well-honed formula that draws on conventions of language, culture, folklore and vague attribution in creating a myth. If you learn to see through that formula, you will have a much easier time spotting the potential hoax.

It goes something like this:

1. Start with a common piece of technology, like a phone or a computer.

(Let’s use a computer monitor.)

 

2. Refer to some obscure technique or component that nonetheless sounds plausible.

(If you set both the brightness and the contrast above 53 percent on your computer monitor, lead from inside will be transmitted into your eyes, eventually resulting in blindness.)

3. Add fake credibility by saying that the police in 23 states have been investigating, that you have checked this out yourself, or that Oprah warned about it on her show.

(Bill Nye the Science Guy devoted an entire show to this!)

4. Predict the end of the world and urge the person to forward the message to as many people as possible.

(Most monitors, by factory default, are set at 75 percent contrast and 80 percent brightness, meaning that just by reading this e-mail message you have probably given yourself lead poisoning.)

5. WRITE AT LEAST ONE SENTENCE IN ALL CAPS IMPLYING A CONSPIRACY TO KEEP THIS QUIET!!!!!!

(THE GOVERNMENT AND THE COMPUTER INDUSTRY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THIS BECAUSE THEY ARE AFRAID IT WILL HURT SALES!!!!)

6. Include lots of exclamation points!!!!!!!

(SEND THIS TO ANYONE WHOSE EYES YOU DON’T WANT TO SEE LIQUIFIED!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND DO IT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU COULD SAVE LIVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

7. Send a message to anyone who won’t check out the claim.

You’ve done it! You’ve created an urban legend, clogged millions of in-boxes and given people one more thing to worry about.

Or you can use the process to help people see through the hokum.

Oh, and about those monitors …

Ask the Doctor and Rose Tyler about those.

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Tagged as: anonymous sources, fact-checking, urban legends, vagueness

1 Comment

  1. Doug,

    Dave just found your website and forwarded it to me. I am just now checking it out and laughing out loud. Grant, at the moment, is playing play-doh (surely urban legend material there) and listening to me laugh. He asked me what was so funny and I told him that his Uncle Bug was a funny guy. He came over wanting to see you on the computer so I had to tell him that what you wrote was funny, you weren’t actually on the computer. He’s back at the play-doh, as it is probably sucking the life out of him in some way or another as we speak. Run for your life!!!!!!

    Thanks for the humor. I can’t wait to read more.

    Mandi

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