Conversation Topics: You've Got Hoax
Not since Chester Carlson invented the photocopier (commonly called a 'xerox machine') has there been an invention as powerful in the field of 'grass roots' communication as E-mail. Couple the "forward" button with a distribution list, and you can distribute information from one person to a large group of people in seconds. And when each of the recipients employs their own distribution list to pass the message on again, a message can travel around the globe to millions in minutes.

Hoaxes -- usually about computer viruses, but sometimes about other things -- take advantage of this power. One of the most recent ones bouncing around the Internet concerns people receiving blue sponges in the US Mail. Acting out of concern for their friends, many people forwarded it on to their distribution list. However, as you can read at the Center for Disease Control's website at , this and other E-mail warnings are simply hoaxes -- spread by those seeking attention or to frighten an already uneasy audience.

Don't allow yourself to get duped by a hoax. Even by saying, "I don't know if this is true or not..." still puts you in the position of perpetuating the hoax. So, before you forward an E-mail to everybody on your distribution list, look for these "red flags" in the note:
  1. The note was written by or passed on by a person you don't know. Scroll through the note to see how it found it's way to you. It is easy enough to make a note look like it started someplace official, so look at both the source and each of the links in the chain between it and you. If you don't find a reliable path, question the message.
  2. The note asserts its legitimacy by claiming that some media source (e.g., CNN) is carrying a story about it or because some major corporation is trying to spread the word. The phrase, "so you know it has to be true" can often be found following these claims. Just because the author says somebody else says that something is true, doesn't mean it is. Anyone can say anything and anybody can say anybody said anything -- that alone doesn't make it true (that's why courts don't allow 'hearsay' evidence). As one of my teachers use to say, "A liar lies and then fools swear to it." Don't be put into the position of being a 'fool.' Check out the story with the source itself. Every media source and major corporation operates a web site. If the note is really as earth-shattering as it pretends to be, you can bet you will be able to find out about it on their web site. Another approach is to do a search on (or some other search engine) for key words in the note. You'll generally find some authoritative source that debunks the hoax.
  3. The notes have a 'breathless' urgency that encourages you to spread the word before some evil happens to you, your PC, or your friends. Haste is the antithesis of prudence, and the creators of hoaxes want you to act quickly before you can determine that the note is a hoax. Don't let them trick you. Investigate it, and only when you are satisfied that the note has substance, then forward it on. Otherwise, your own credibility can be damaged by spreading unfounded rumors (remember the children's story of the little boy who cried 'wolf?').

Finally, use commonsense when trying to judge the truthfulness of notes. While E-mail is a great way to send information quickly, people who are responsibly trying to alert the public to danger know that there are many other methods that are more reliable for reaching a large audience than relying on notes randomly filtering through the Internet.

Updated October 1, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page