How do you tell if a warning you receive by e-mail, fax, SMS, or text is an urban legend? How was South Africa’s great hurricane hoax easily identifiable as an urban legend?
Here are ten rules for spotting an urban legend in your inbox:
1. Public health and safety warnings are always issued directly by the relevant authorities, such as the police, emergency services, weather bureau, or traffic department. If you receive it second hand, immediately be suspicious.
2. Public health and safety warnings are not distributed by chain letter or by individuals e-mailing their entire address books. If you receive a mass-mailed warning, assume it is an urban legend.
3. Urban legend-based mass-mailed warnings are almost always accompanied by the name of the supposed authority that issued it, including the name, position and phone number of the individual responsible. This does not mean it is authentic.
4. In most cases, the authority figure or individual named as the source of the legend did not issue the warning. Where the individual cited in the “document” did issue the warning, but mass-mailed it by e-mail or fax rather than through formal channels, it was usually based on that person having received the warning second-hand, and not having the experience to identify it for what it is. The individual then used his or her position of authority to give weight to the warning, despite his or her organisation or department not being the appropriate one to issue the warning. It is difficult for members of the public to spot the difference in such cases, but journalists should know (and often don't).
5. If the e-mail urges you to forward the warning to all your friends, don't. The more exclamation marks used in this request, the more certain you can be that it is an urban legend or hoax.
6. If the senders tell you they don't usually forward such e-mails, obviously their common sense has finally given up the battle, and they have joined the ranks of the gullible.
7. If someone tells you it was received from a lawyer, doctor, historian (all real examples I've seen) or similar authority figure, and that this person is highly educated and/or very level-headed, you can be certain you are dealing with an urban legend. Firstly, educated people do not have a monopoly on common sense. Secondly, elite, wealthy and respected professionals are no more level-headed than ordinary users of municipal buses. Thirdly, the very need to justify the warning, by invoking the profession of another person who fell for it, indicates that even the sender realised the warning was suspect to start with.
8. Any mass-mailed warning that tells you "This is NOT an urban legend" is an urban legend.
9. Always check on the well-known urban legend reference sites, such as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, better known as Snopes, About.com: Urban Legends, and The AFU & Urban Legends Archive. Chances are, a variation on the same hoax is already dcoumented there.
10. Never, ever, forward mass-mailed e-mail warnings. Just don't do it.
Finally, there is one exception to Rule 10: you are welcome to forward such hoax or urban legend e-mails to me, so that I can track variations when they emerge.