I wrote this for our local village newsletter after a hoax warning story on hotel key cards holding personal credit card data on their magnetic strip found its way into the last issue.
You may have heard that Bob Holness played saxophone on Baker Street. Or that that you eat eight spiders during your lifetime. These are, of course, absolute nonsense; both were ‘made up facts’, the former as a spoof fact in the NME (by future-radio broadcaster Stuart Maconie), while the latter is even more weird – the story about how it was made up appears itself to have been made up!
The ability to quickly share things via e-mail or social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gets interesting or useful information to people quickly and cheaply, but on the other hand, much of it is absolute tosh. The problem is that we trust our friends or some vague reference to authority contained within the message, so we don’t check whether it’s real. It’s easy to be taken in – how many believed the fake “hotel key card” warning that was published in last month’s newsletter?
So, how can you tell what’s real and what’s fake?
Well, there are two methods: the first is a quick rule of thumb. Look at the message your friend has shared. Does it have any of these common hoax indicators: a warning about something that threatens your safety or your money (to grab your attention); apparently sent by a police force or other body of authority (to make you believe it); a higher than average quota of exclamation marks!!!; a request to SHARE WITH YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS in upper case (to prompt you to act on it).
If it’s got all of them, 99% of the time it’s fake. The second method takes slightly longer but allows you to check the likely validity of the information. Go to any of the hoax-busting websites (such as www.hoax-slayer.com, www.snopes.com or www.hoaxbusters.org) and search for the information you suspect is a bit dodgy.
Other less alarmist shared nonsense is the ‘Chinese moneybags date’, Facebook copyright statement, Mars being the size of the moon in the sky, ‘share’ a Facebook page to win expensive prizes, and the recent ‘Total Wipeout Tour’ which has been hoovering up basic personal details for probable future use in online marketing.
Some people have responded to being hoaxed by saying “better safe than sorry” but it’s important to be able to distinguish real information from spam. Think of it as a someone else’s erroneous electronic graffiti which you are spraying on your friends’ walls. So remember to check before you share!