Anatomy of a Hoax

I have to give credit where credit is due; Millennials, you get it! Gen-Xers, most of you get it.  Baby-Boomers, you are trying, but half of you don’t get it. Silent Generation, I don’t know what to say…

Just because it’s on the Internet or a friend emailed it to you, doesn’t make it so. “It’s a HOAX!”

Many well intentioned people, who are trying to help their friends, propagate Internet hoaxes on social networking sites and in email inboxes.  The only thing I can do is keep shouting, cajoling and instructing you on the differences between legitimate threats and Internet hoaxes. Below are a few thoughts to keep in mind when you are presented with an apparent, looming Internet threat.

Delivery Methods

HOAX : Warnings are generally spread via social networking sites and email from well intentioned family and friends.

LEGIT: Warnings are generally disseminated from vendor websites, security websites and Internet news sites.

Characteristics of a Hoax

  • Outrageous or sensational claim.
  • Message feels urgent.  “This just happened and you need to know about it”
  • Usually contains a specific “Call To Action”.
    • “Email your legislator right now to voice your opinion”.
    • “Forward this to everyone you know”.
  • Formatting  “Tells”  (email)
    • ALL CAPS!!!!!!
    • Repeated claims, “This is not a hoax” or “This is real” or “Forward this to everyone you know”
    • Use of Center Justification, multiple colors and  font sizes.

Email Hoaxes: An Example

  • Sometimes the post or email will contain some items that are true and some that aren’t.
  • Below is an example I received the other day.
Muslim Stamp Hoax

For the full details about this email go to http://www.snopes.com/politics/stamps/eidstamp.asp

  • Notice the following:
    • An outrageous or sensational claim.
      • President Obama has sanctioned an Muslim Holiday stamp.
    • A feeling of urgency
      • “If there is one thing you forward today, let it be this”.
    • Specific call to action
      • Forward this email.
      • Adamantly and vocally boycott this stamp.
    • Formatting “Tells”
      • REMEMBER, HONOR, EID, MUSLIM–all capital letters.
      • forward today
      • Red and blue fonts, as well as center justification
  • These are all text book signs that something is not right here.  So what’s the next step?

How to Handle a Hoax

  • Verify the claim with legitimate websites that specialize in investigating Internet hoaxes like  Snopes.com
    • If you had followed the URL in the picture above  (or click here) you would have found  the specific details surrounding these claims.
      • The stamp does exist, but is not new and has nothing to do with Christmas.
      • President Obama had nothing to do with commissioning the stamp. The EID stamps were commissioned in 2001 prior to 9/11.
      • Boycotting the stamp is irrelevant.   Snopes.com states that they are specialty stamps and generally sold only to those who ask for them;  all proceeds go to the USPS.
    • As you can see, this really changes things. It pays to investigate.
  • Gently and privately inform the person who sent the email or posted the hoax .  Provide documentation  showing where you obtained your information  so that you are presenting facts not attacks . Remember to be very respectful and tactful in your correction. You don’t want to embarrass the person, just provide factual information.

Final Suggestion

  • Before you post or forward warnings via email or on Facebook please check them out for yourself. Don’t be the one forwarding misinformation. Don’t be the one propagating hoaxes.

I would love to know what other sites you use to investigate internet hoaxes. Please leave a comment with your favorite site.

Update (Clarification)

The Section titled How To Handle a Hoax,should have been titled “How to handle a Potential Hoax“. Sometimes,  the information you are evaluating is, in fact, true. This is why I suggested you check it out on sites like Snopes.com , as well as, security websites and news sites. Please make sure you evaluate all claims sent to you with a critical eye.  11/26/2010

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