How To Debunk Online Rumors & Urban Myths

Debunk Urban Myths Intro   How To Debunk Online Rumors & Urban MythsHave you ever seen a post on the Internet and your only reaction was “what? That can’t possibly be true“. It’s happened to me lots of times and I’m always sent on a wild goose chase, researching websites and articles from all over, just to confirm whether or not it really is true. Debunking an online rumor or urban myth takes time, but it’s quite satisfying.

Keep reading to find out what makes these rumors and myths so believable, so easy to spread, and so easy to debunk. If only people knew how to fact-check, we wouldn’t have so many ridiculous stories floating around. The next time you want to propagate an urban legend, be sure to confirm its veracity, otherwise you’ll just be embarrassed!

What Are Urban Legends?

Urban legends are stories that contain some aspect that is strange, unusual, outrageous, or just outright unbelievable and is circulated from person to person through emails, by word of mouth, or any other communicative medium. They’re also called urban myths, urban tales, contemporary legends, and (more recently) online rumors.

Have you ever been told that you shouldn’t swim up to an hour after you eat or else you’ll cramp and drown? What about that scary story about saying “Bloody Mary” three times in the dark to summon her wrathful soul? Did you hear that vaccines will give you autism? Despite the fact that people spread these urban myths even today, they are all FALSE.

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Everybody has heard an urban legend at some point in their life because they’re so prevalent and easy to propagate. All it takes is one person to share it with two people, those two people each share it with two more people, and soon enough, it’s spreading like wildfire to anyone and everyone.

Due to the anonymity offered by the Internet, anyone can make up any story without a citation and gullible Internet users will fall for it head over heels without checking the facts. Just look at email chain letters and you’ll see how powerful these baseless-but-intriguing myths can be!

One of the distinguishing marks of an urban legend is that the person sharing it often refuses to cite where they’re getting their information from. Usually it comes from an uncle, an aunt, an “article they read online,” or more commonly, “Guess what I just heard?” If a story or claim is unverifiable, it may be an urban legend.

Where To Look To Debunk Urban Myths

What’s interesting is that some people are becoming so bothered by these urban legends that they’re creating entire websites dedicated to debunking these crazy stories. If you want to debunk a well-known or rising myth, just visit one of these sites and it’ll probably be traced out for you already.

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Snopes

There are very few people who frequent the Internet and have never heard of Snopes. They claim to be the definitive reference source for all things related to legends, rumors, myths, and whatnot. They’ve been around since 1995 and have grown to cover myths in over 40 categories. If you can’t find it at Snopes, you probably won’t find it anywhere.

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About Urban Legends

About.com, the famous site for tutorials and guides for hundreds of different subjects, actually has a subsection run by David Emery dedicated to documenting and debunking urban legends. It’s regularly updated (about one post every week or two) and he shows you why the claims are false. Interesting reads.

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HoaxBusters

The website is ugly (very reminiscent of early 1990’s web design) but it’s full of great information all about Internet hoaxes. In fact, the tagline for the site is “The BIG LIST of Internet Hoaxes” and the site really lives up to it. If you read something fishy about the Internet or a subject related to the Internet, you’ll probably find it here.

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Is Twitter Wrong?

This is a Tumblr series that analyzes the ridiculous claims, photos, and images that appear on Twitter from time to time. The format is simple and easy to get into: each post is titled with a specific question, then the writer (@flashboy) goes through and picks it apart piece by piece to show why it’s not true.

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Urban Legends Online

This website has dozens and dozens of urban myths and legends ranging from email hoaxes to scary stories and everything in between. Most of them are user-submitted but they’re entertaining to read. A few of them (but not all of them) have explanations or debunking claims.

Let’s Debunk A Myth!

I’m going to take a random myth that I recently heard online and I’m going to show you what I’d do if I wanted to verify its truthfulness. The myth? There are giant camel spiders in Iraq that can grow up to 12” in length, run 25 miles per hour, and can eat human flesh!

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I remember first seeing this myth almost 8 years ago when I was in high school. At the time, the War in Iraq was still going strong and I was hearing about a lot of the suffering and discomfort that American soldiers were facing overseas. And then I saw this picture and immediately freaked out. That’s one HUGE spider!

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If you’d rather have all of the debunking done for you, you can always resort to one of the sites dedicated to debunking. Snopes is probably your best shot, but the other ones are useful in their own ways.

If you’re using Snopes, the website’s homepage has a grid of icons that you can click, each one leading to a separate category of myths and rumors. Since we’re looking for camel spiders in the War of Iraq, I could try Critters, Horror, or Military.

Let me save you the trouble and tell you that the camel spider myth isn’t in any of those categories. So what can I do now? I decide to use the Snopes website’s search bar for “camel spiders.” Lo and behold, there’s a single link that takes me to an article about camel spiders in Iraq!

In the future, I’d recommend just using the search feature if it’s available. It can save you a lot of time.

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If none of the debunker websites have any information, I would visit the Wikipedia page for camel spiders. Wikipedia is great because it’s constantly updated and, most of the time, true. I wouldn’t use it as my primary source, but it’s great for cursory information.

So I look up camel spiders and learn that some species really can grow up to 12” in length when measured across the leg-span. Wikipedia has a section that talks about the camel spider’s run speed, which is estimated to be 10 miles per hour, and there’s a citation for that claim. Good.

In addition, the page states that camel spiders can inflict painful bites, but they are not venomous and they do not feed on humans. They live in desert climates and feed on small rodents and anthropods. Citations for these claims? Yes. Good.

But what if it’s a topic/hoax/scam/rumor that can’t be found on Wikipedia? If it’s a hoax, you can always use Google to find news articles or warning posts regarding specific types of hoaxes, like the “Celebrity X died today!” hoax. Similarly, you can use Google to find news posts on recent and popular scams that are floating around the Internet.

Conclusion

Don’t be the one who spreads false information and urban myths online! Be skeptical of anything you read, especially if it sounds crazy or unbelievable. Always fact-check a story before you go ahead and spread it. It will help reduce the amount of misunderstandings across the Internet!

Image Credits: Friday the 13th Via Shutterstock, Whispering Girls Via Shutterstock

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16 Comments -

5 votes

Scott

Thanks for the list of sites, Joel ! I never knew about Hoax Busters.

A site I only recently began using as a ‘second opinion’ is Hoax Slayer (http://www.hoax-slayer.com/). I have no idea how it stacks up to other such sites, but it seems to have a good deal of information.

0 votes

Joel Lee

On first glance, it seems like a passable alternative to Snopes. The database is filled with a good number of hoaxes and it seems like a lot of work has gone into it. Thanks for sharing it.

6 votes

Garey Boone

In the past I used to get ridiculous amount of hoax email from family members and friends now not so much. I would reply to my family members and friends with a link and a snapshot from Snopes or one of the other sites referenced in this article and educate them a little on hoaxes and what not and when in doubt check it out. Most of the time the offending mail was sent to everyone in their contacts or posted on facebook etc.. Some would thank me for the info and others would just keep on posting hoaxes and other BS. IMHO if you don’t take the time to do your research before forwarding something that sounds a little sketchy you’re an idiot and chances are you’re going to look like an idiot to more than one person in your contacts database.

0 votes

Joel Lee

Haha, I have to agree with you here. The lack of critical thinking and discernment across the Internet is frightening, especially when it comes to chain letters and hoaxes. Good job on educating people instead of just ignoring them!

0 votes

Phoenix Stormcrow

Solpugids, while not dangerous, are incredibly creepy looking and very fast. It’s easy to see how the rumors about them spread.

0 votes

macwitty

I use to take a line and google it – mostly I end up at Snopes. Good to have more places to check.

6 votes

Rob Hindle0

This is my approach to those emails, usually copied to a long list of recipients, usually hoaxes/scams and often sent by friends and family.

First, if in doubt take a line of text from the message and google like this:

“my chosen line of text” hoax

The quote marks are important to the search.
The results usually confirm your suspicions.

Next I do a “reply all” to say “Do not circulate this any further, it is a hoax” and include a relevant link giving mre detail such as coverage on somewhere like Snopes.

Be on the alert for worse than hoax, a link to a compromised web site that will try to infect your PC.
I never cease to be amazed at people’s behaviour, I’ve even had “copy this to all your friends” email fake scam warnings that, if you take the trouble to read the text, say “this is a hoax”.
I alerted a friend recently that his email account had been hacked because everyone in his address book had just received an email from him with no content other than a link to a compromised website where they’d risk picking up a trojan. He seemed totally unconcerned.
A relative sent me (and dozens of others) a fake scam alert, I provided him conclusive proof that it was a hoax and should not be circulated. His response was that I must be mistaken because his college IT teacher said it was true.

Because people know of my interest in PC and internet security they seem to think I’d like to be alerted to new reported risks – but they never do even the most basic checks first and the only alerts I ever get from them are very obvious scams or hoaxes.

For persistent offenders I send a far less polite email from an email address in a fake name which I reserve for that purpose. Having shown that what they sent is easily checked and is a scam or hoax (usually debunked years ago) I point out that forwarding this garbage unchecked makes them complicit in the stupidity and makes them look like the idiots they are.

0 votes

Garey Boone

I’ve done the exact same thing with the persistent offenders too I also have setup filters for the persistent ones as well that end up going into a forwarded folder just in case something isn’t a hoax or a chain letter.

5 votes

Daniel Escasa

While I’m fairly tolerant of “first offenders”, I do have a beef with those who should know better. E.g., journalists, mainstream or IT, who spread online rumors. I get nasty and tell them that they should know better.

An entertainment columnist in one of our dailies here, for instance, got an email from a journalist in HK about Tommy Hilfiger’s alleged slur on Filipinos. She wrote about it, and I couldn’t hold back. Wrote their reader’s advocate, and expressed my extreme disappointment that a professional journalist should forget the first thing about covering an item: checking facts. Not having access to the contact info of the journalist in HK, I also put her journalistic standards in question.

0 votes

Joel Lee

It’s really annoying when someone who SHOULD know better ends up spreading false news/hoaxes/rumors. I mean, we all make mistakes, true, but some people ought to make fewer mistakes than others. ;P

0 votes

Lester

HoaxBusters is a new one for me, too. I’ll check it out.

Snopes used to be great, but IMO isn’t totally reliable anymore because personal opinion is sometimes substituted for fact.

0 votes

Bud

Personally, I STAY AWAY from Snopes, as it obfuscates the truth and is funded by uber-liberal individual(s) with an agenda !

5 votes

Someone

Some good points made in this article. But in the context of limiting the spread of urban legends, the article doesn’t seem all that useful, as it is essentially preaching to the converted.

People who are willing to go to the effort of reading this article are the kind of people who would research an urban myth they encounter and, upon discovering that it was false, ignore said myth rather than spread it. Those who would forward that myth to others without checking its authenticity, are not the same people who would take the time to read this article.

One way to approach this issue at its root would be to create an urban legend about bad things happening to people who forward urban legends, without first confirming their authenticity. This could, at the very least, inject an awareness of the issue directly into the community whom it would most benefit, and for everyone else would provide a little irony for comic relief.

0 votes

Joel Lee

You make a good point, though I’m inclined to believe that this article will reach SOME people who’ve never thought of debunking urban myths, and if it converts even one person I’d consider that a success.

“One way to approach this issue at its root would be to create an urban legend about bad things happening to people who forward urban legends, without first confirming their authenticity.”

Hilarious!

0 votes

Nico Zilvetty

More people should learn on how to properly research the topic they would like to discuss. Great article!

0 votes

Sridharan Doraivelu

Very informative and all internet users should read this.