Two groups of people have perpetuated urban legends. Those who create them, and those who spread them.
Those who create them fall into a class of humanity for which we reserve our utmost contempt. They are similar in character to those who would rather knock an elderly woman down on the sidewalk and steal her purse than help her across the street. They put their fingers in the pickle jar to extract the vinegar cucumber slices. They take and do not give. They straddle the white line between two parking places. They chew gum with their mouth open, and pop the gum continuously, long after the flavor is gone. They kick dogs and abuse animals and flip birds and park in handicapped zones, taking pride in their own gall, and the misery, discomfort and contempt they cause others. They wheel their overflowing grocery cart into the 20-items-or-less lane as if the sign does not apply to them. Those same self-serving people are the ones who sit at their computers and create viruses or dream up urban legends they email to generate wide-spread panic, distrust or anger.
For three or four years back in the late 90’s I recall receiving several varieties of urban legends circulated in emails about Madelyn Murray O’Hare. The emails claimed the avowed atheist was getting, or had succeeded in getting, the word God removed from all U.S. government buildings and U.S. currency. I still received such emails long after she disappeared, and, yes, even long after they discovered her body and buried her. I heard from some friends of mine, but could never confirm, that some group had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from unsuspecting Internet users to hire lawyers to fight O’Hare’s cause.
That brings me to the second group of Urban Legend perpetrators, the ones who pass on the hoaxes to their friends and relatives with pleas to keep the message going, and tell everybody you know.* Those pleas cause the spread of the hoaxes. Before long hundreds of thousands of people get all panic-stricken and worried about something that doesn’t even exist.
You can prevent the spread of urban legend hoaxes. Here are several things you can do to halt an email hoax in its tracks:
- Think. Does the story sound the least bit unusual, or even absurd, e.g. cell phone numbers will soon become published and given to telemarketers, and asparagus has miraculous cancer fighting properties, and President Obama is going to ban the National Day of Prayer, Olive Garden giving away $500 food coupons to sign up as fans on its Facebook page. If the purported “news” sounds the slightest bit phony, unusual, or weird, it probably is.
- Verify. Don’t rely on emails as a source for news and information. Reliable news sources do not publish news stories in emails. They may email you with updates or notifications about their news, but they send those out to drive you to their website to read their news and support their advertisers. You can receive links to news stories through news feeds, but you select the news feeds you want. If you trust the news source, you will probably trust the authenticity of the story in the feed.
- Read. If you get an email with a news item or announcement about a big event, BEFORE YOU FORWARD THE EMAIL TO OTHERS, do some research with some reliable news sources, such as network news websites, cable news websites, the Drudge Report, your local TV or newspaper websites or blogs. If the event is as significant as the email claims it to be, you can find reliable news sources that will substantiate the story.
- Pass. Don’t forward stories you read in emails to your contacts. Don’t send messages to others that someone forwarded to you. Stories with a FWD in the subject line are making the rounds in cyberspace, and will cover the world whether you pass them on or not.
Let me make a bold prediction here. I predict that if you never ever forward another email news item or heartwarming story or cute picture collection to anyone ever again, those same people you would have sent them to will receive them anyway, and so will you.
It’s the law of the Internet. In fact it’s Internet Law Number 1 — What goes around goes around and around and around and around.
Another way to avoid urban legends and virus emails–If you do not know the sender or recognize the sender’s email address DO NOT CLICK ON THE EMAIL under any circumstances.
*I must admit that I was guilty of passing on an urban legend or two before a friend of mine told me what I’m telling you here. From that point I became pretty urban legend savvy.