Debunking Urban Legends (Or: It Happened to a Friend of That Woman Who My Mother Used to Know!!!!!)

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 • 7 Comments on Debunking Urban Legends (Or: It Happened to a Friend of That Woman Who My Mother Used to Know!!!!!)

I spend entirely too much time debunking urban legends.  No, I don’t actually go out and disprove some of the nonsense that is floating around on the internet.  There are websites for that.  But I have this itchy respond finger that feels compelled to take anyone to task who forwards or posts something that is a hoax, a myth or a lie.  Mostly I do it for the sake of my own sanity—usually, once I let someone know that e-mail they just forwarded to their 300 closest acquaintances happens to be a myth that’s been circulating since, oh, 1972, they recognize the error of their ways and verify everything they’ve ever heard before they repeat it, e-mail it or put it in their Christmas newsletter.  (This, of course, is my own personal myth. The reality is, they probably take me off their e-mail list so I won’t rain on their parade.)

I go after urban legends because I am a writer who has had it hammered into my head since high school journalism that one should always verify sources.  I also do it as a teacher, who has heard 18 year old students repeat as gospel urban legends I heard when I was 18.  And I do it for kicks, because I question everything and enjoy finding out the truth.  Finally, I do it for you—yes, you.  If I can prevent just one person from forwarding some ridiculous story, I figure I’m saving every single person in the world (or at least those who have e-mail) from having to read about how Facebook is going to start charging a monthly subscription. (And if you joined that group on Facebook… you should un-join before I find out about it.)

I rarely forward anything that is sent to me, but I might repeat it—if it’s true. But first, I have to verify anything that is sent to me or posted on a blog, page or site I read.  My favorite urban legend website is Snopes.com.  They divide urban legends into categories and have a search engine.  Plus, their entries are cleverly written and fun to read.  They are

the

place to go for information.  But, because I am a skeptic (or journalist?) at heart, I will cross reference Snopes.com’s information with other urban legend websites or simply Google the key words of the story I’ve been sent. It really is just that easy—usually.  Hey, if CNN can fall for a hoax, it can happen to anyone, right?  But it shouldn’t happen more than once.

If research doesn’t interest you, here are some red flags to help you determine whether something you’ve received or been told might be an urban legend:

—If it is about the government, it is an urban legend.

—Likewise, if it involves “the man” in anyway—i.e. politicians, law enforcement agencies, etc.—it is probably an urban legend.

—If it is about spiders, snakes, rats, alligators or sharks, it is probably an urban legend.  (Yes, gerbils fall under the “rat” category.)

—If it is about someone who is of a different religion, race or ethnicity than the person who has forwarded or repeated it, it is most certainly an urban legend.

—If it involves body parts being cut off, it might be an urban legend.  (Thanks to Lorena Bobbitt, this one isn’t always clear cut.  Ha. Cut. I made a pun.)

—If it involves anything gross, it is probably an urban legend. (Though people apparently really do stick strange things in places where strange things should not go.)

—If it includes a picture or pictures, someone has gone the extra mile to make their urban legend look pretty.

—If it has professional sounding quotes from unnamed experts, it is an urban legend written by a wannabe fiction writer.

—If it has professional sounding quotes from named experts, the names are probably fake and it is probably an urban legend.

—If it has COMMENTS IN CAPITAL LETTERS INTERJECTED BETWEEN THE PARAGRAPHS, it is an urban legend that has been forwarded so many times it now contains commentary from someone who felt it was their duty to emphasize certain points before forwarding it to their 300 closest acquaintances.

—If it is about a cookie recipe, a cactus, a gang initiation that’s going to take place FRIDAY NIGHT!!!!!! or Pop Rocks, it is an urban legend that has been around longer than the internet has been in existence.  Yes, really.

—If it contains more than one exclamation point at the end of any sentence, it is most certainly an urban legend.

—If it has anything to do with your computer and it has not been sent by someone who runs an IT department, it is an urban legend. (And if you do what it says and delete that weird file, it is probably the last thing you will ever read on that computer.)

—If it is anything that has been copied and pasted into an e-mail, it is probably an urban legend.

—If it contains all the headers from all the instances it has been previously forwarded, it is an urban legend sent by someone who is not very bright.  (Okay, that’s mean.  But seriously, people!  Do you really want your professional e-mail address, complete with your company’s information and that legal disclaimer saying that anything contained within “is confidential and not to be forwarded” to be forwarded in perpetuity?  For the love of all that is good, if you must forward this crap, forward it from your Hotmail address!)

—Even if it has been forwarded by your mother, your sister, your granny

and

your pastor, it’s probably still an urban legend. (But I’m sure they all love you and only want what’s best for you.)

—If it is about sex… well, forward it to me and I’ll tell you if it’s an urban legend or not.  If I don’t know the answer, I will be happy to research it personally.  (And no, the G-spot is not an urban legend.)

Okay, does that clear it up?  To summarize: Do not forward anything to anyone until you have verified the veracity of the information you are forwarding.  If you choose to ignore this important piece of advice and feel compelled to click Forward: All the next time someone sends you a TRUE STORY ABOUT A WOMAN IN HEAVENHELPUS, NEBRASKA WHO ATE GROUND GLASS IN HER PORK FRIED RICE AND THEN DIED BECAUSE SHE CHOKED TO DEATH ON HER OWN BLOOD IN THE PARKING LOT OF THE RESTAURANT, SO DON’T EAT CHINESE FOOD EVER, EVER, EVER!!!!!!!!, please do me a favor: delete my e-mail address from your address book and forget you know me.

If you have any other sure-fire signs that something is an urban legend, please feel free to add them in the comments. Knowledge is power, after all. I think Fred Rogers said that right after he retired from his job as a professional killer for the Navy SEALS and started that cute little children’s show on PBS.

This has been a Public Service Announcement.  Thank you and good night.

 

 

Posted by Kristina in Musings
  • Jo says:

    Did you see the photos of the body inside the boa constrictor? Was that a fake?

  • Kristina says:

    Craig ~ That’s one I’ve never seen!  I love that it’s about a word—double the fun for a writer to debunk.

    Some urban legends are fine to perpetuate… if you would like to be “nearly 33,” I will certainly help circulate the rumor. wink

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Kristina says:

    Jo ~ Is this what you’re talking about? http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/weekly/aa061101a.htm

    Interestingly, I didn’t find this one on Snopes.com, but on About.com’s Urban Legends page. (Or maybe it’s on Snopes and I missed it. They certainly have a lot of snake myths covered.)

    It seems likely this is some kind of hoax.  The article at Urban Legends does a nice job of breaking down what’s going on in the photos and analyzing the accompanying text.  It seems to me as if the first couple of photos might be of a snake who ate a large animal (not a person) and an urban legend was born…

    The key elements that make me believe it’s a hoax are the variety of stories that go along with it (where it happened, who was eaten) and the fact that it was never widely reported by legitimate sources (wouldn’t this make the national news?).

    Snakes inspire a certain morbid fascination, don’t they?  Here is another impressive photo.  The picture is real (though mislabeled): http://www.snopes.com/photos/animals/cowsnake.asp#photo

  • Once someone forwarded me this email that explained, quite elaborately, that the word “shit” came from an acronym for “Store High In Transit.”  I usually just ignore these circulating emails as a matter of course, but this one I did a respond to all, including the sender, and gave the actual etymology of the word.

    I don’t get forwarded emails from that person anymore.

    My word verification: nearly33

    Really, I’m not…  That would be an urban legend.

  • Amen, sister!

    What gets me is how often people I generally consider way too smart to get sucked in by this stuff, do. However, I suppose human gullibility is why those idiotic Nigerian scams and their umpteen quadrillion variations still land in my spam folder every. single. day.

    And yeah, I shoot back, “Actually, this isn’t true” emails, too. Amazing how that helps unclog one’s inbox. wink

  • Kristina says:

    Karen ~ I love those Nigerian scams. (I’ve been getting a bunch lately about sheiks in the Middle East who need to deposit their billions in my bank account. Isn’t that nice?)

    I’m sure someone could do a sociological dissertation about intelligent people who fall for urban legends. I’d love to study it, but I think it’ll have to wait for my next lifetime.  grin

  • One of the more disturbing variations on the Nigerian scam was a plea from a US officer stationed in Iraq, needing someone to help him move millions (in US dollars IIRC) presumably found lying around some high-level Iraqi’s quarters during a military raid.

    So sad.

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