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Have 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!