Hand on LaptopThis is a blog I originally posted on Facebook on August 27, 2012. This is a lead-in to a new blog I’ll be writing soon. Hope you enjoy!

Everyone loves a good story. People have been telling each other stories for thousands of years. Not all stories are true. Of course, some weren’t meant to be and everyone knows it. However, in other cases people don’t know a story isn’t true and they pass it along as if it were. This is one of the chief ways rumors get started. In the internet age, rumors and urban legends spread faster than chickenpox at a daycare. All it takes is a few seconds on Facebook, and someone can start a rumor that eventually millions of people will hear.

With the incredible volume of information that is passed around the internet, it can sometimes be difficult to tell which stories are true and which ones are phony baloney. Some people (I happen to be one of them) are natural skeptics and are suspicious of almost everything they hear or read, especially when it comes via the internet. The old saying, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see,” has never been truer than in the internet age.

To help further the cause of truth, here’s a helpful little guide for testing the veracity of stories that you read on the internet, whether they pop up in your email inbox, your Facebook news feed, or somewhere else.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This rule applies to many things in life—credit card offers, sweepstakes winnings, weight loss pills, etc. If the events in a story seem just a bit too fortuitous, or if the story leads perfectly into a pithy punch line, then your baloney detector should be sounding the alarm. Granted, an amazing story isn’t guaranteed to be false, because amazing things really do happen in this crazy life. But more often than not, if it’s hard to believe, it’s because you shouldn’t believe it.

If it’s typed in all caps, it automatically loses credibility.

I don’t know why, but it seems that quite a few made-up stories come in all caps. Maybe the person who first started passing around the tall tale thought that putting it in all caps would help boost its credibility. You know, kind of like adding “This is a true story!” to the end of a story that most definitely isn’t true. Whatever the case (no pun intended), be suspicious of email or Facebook stories typed in all caps. Chances are they did not come from a reliable or authoritative source. Also, typing in all caps is considered very poor netiquette (internet etiquette, for the uninitiated). It’s like shouting. Do you believe people more when they shout at you? Likewise, be on the alert when people shout at you in all caps.

If it involves donations for every “Like,” “Share,” or “Forward,” it’s almost certainly bogus.

There are voluminous numbers of these going around. Usually they follow a form that goes something like this: “Poor little Jimmy (usually an adorable baby or small child) has cancer and will die without treatment. Facebook has promised to donate $1 to his medical care for every like/share this picture/post gets.” I’m not sure how these things started. It might be something as simple (and disgusting) as a very needy netizen who desperately wanted more Facebook likes, so she made up a story that would prey on people’s emotions and sent it out into the webosphere. A few seconds of critical thinking should help you determine why these posts are bogus. First, Facebook is going to limit their donations to a dying child based on how many likes a picture gets? That’s twisted. Talk about bad PR! But it’s not even a picture that Facebook has posted. It’s someone else’s picture. Why would they donate money because someone’s random picture gets likes? Why wouldn’t they try to raise the funds through a more official forum, say, a Facebook announcement sent directly to your inbox, accompanied by a press release, and so on? I could go on, but I think you get the point. This is one of the most obvious fakes, and I am continually amazed that people fall for it. Look, I realize that these posts are accompanied by a real tearjerker of a story. That’s why they work. But just remember to use your critical thinking skills and not only your emotions, and you’ll have all the tools you need to sniff out the baloney.

If it doesn’t cite a source, it’s probably made up.

Every now and again I see Facebook posts and email forwards where wild claims are made without any substantiation whatsoever. Often these are politically-oriented posts, with accusations directed at certain politicians or political parties (e.g., “Mitt Romney said he was too important to go to Vietnam!”). Or it might be a clever quote, speech, or letter attributed to some well-known person (e.g., “General David Petraeus calls out President Obama!”). But if there is no source included, be suspicious that the information you’re reading might not be reliable. If this is a legitimate story, why not include the source from which it came?

If it does cite a source but doesn’t include specific information or a link, it’s probably made up.

Of course, just because it does include a source doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes the source is vague; other times it’s misattributed (e.g., the story might claim to come from a New York Times article, but lacks specific information about the date and page number). Also, in this day and age, where almost everything is on the internet, it’s very poor form not to include an internet link, so if there’s no link be at least a little skeptical of the source. Of course, if you have reason to doubt, you can do the research yourself…

If you think a story is suspicious, Google it.

One thing that really bothers me about bogus internet stories is how quickly people pass them along without taking a few minutes to verify the story. If you’re going to share something with the world through Facebook, email, or any other venue, take responsibility and make sure you’re sharing truth and not lies. Yes, I know; re-sharing internet stories is incredibly easy, and when the story you’ve just read really hits a nerve it’s oh so tempting to just hit that “Share” button and let everyone know how you feel. But please, for the sake of your friends, and the sake of the truth, become a fact-checker. Google is a great place to start; you can find information on pretty much anything in a matter of seconds with a simple internet search. For dealing specifically with fact-checking, sites like snopes.com and urbanlegends.about.com are indispensible tools. For fact-checking political statements, factcheck.org and politifact.com are great resources. Don’t become both a victim and a vendor of internet urban legends just because you were too lazy to fact check.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a solid starting place if you want to be a good internet skeptic (and everyone should be an internet skeptic). Share your own tips for improving your baloney detector in the comments. And remember: before you share a lie, verify.

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Here are a couple of outstanding blogs along similar lines that some friends of mine have written. Enjoy!

Bruno Mars’ Masonic Baby Haircut and 5 Ways to STOP Misinformation on the Internet

ALS Challenge and the Age of Aquarius

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