I feel sorry for Morgan Freeman, I really do. Every few months, the poor man receives the sad news of his untimely death from a spurious Facebook page called “R.I.P. Morgan Freeman”. The actor’s response? “Like Mark Twain, I keep reading that I have died. I hope these stories are not true.” These bogus internet accounts are like a verbal pandemic; they spread exponentially from the original source, but are very difficult to kill because the person-to-person contagion factor is so high. One post can spread so rapidly that the misinformation can last for years.
Freeman is not the only one to have suffered “Death by Internet”. Bill Cosby, Rihanna, Tony Danza and Eddie Murphy have been similarly snuffed out in recent years. But these are not the only hoaxes that have been perpetrated by Internet pranksters (or more accurately, idiots with too much time on their hands). People have been frightened out of their wits by giant spiders that can only be killed by shotgun, poisoned gas pumps, parking lot rapists and adulterated food and beverage products (Coke seems to be a frequent target). As if the American pubic doesn’t have enough legitimate hazards to obsess about, there are morons on the Internet creating new horrors for us to contemplate. It’s enough to make you bolt the door, jump into bed and pull the covers over your head, after destroying all forms of electronic media in the house.
The people who create this garbage are bad enough, but what causes those who receive these posts to perpetuate them by passing them on to 10 of their closest friends? The same urge that causes people to pass on gossip and bad news, I suppose; the guilty pleasure of being the first to impart the shocking details of tragedy. Some do it with relish (woman mistakenly uses daughter’s glitter spray in place of feminine deodorant before visiting the gynecologist); and some with mock sadness (Hollywood Breaking News – Chinese Superstar Jackie Chan dies while perfecting dangerous stunt). The Jackie Chan rumor was rampant during the 2013 holiday season for some reason, and it seemed to circulate incessantly, no matter how many times it was publicly refuted.
The problem is that many people just absolutely refuse to believe that they have been duped, and worse, make excuses for passing on erroneous information by saying, “Oh, I don’t pay attention to that stuff, I just pass it on.” This completely frustrates and bemuses me. Would you pass on a questionable e-mail about a friend or relative? Would you pass on unsubstantiated gossip without verifying it? And why would you want to add to the paranoia of people you know (your e-mail or Facebook friends) unnecessarily? Why is the temptation to scare the living daylights out of Aunt Janet more irresistible than common sense and restraint? And why is it that the more outlandish the claim is, the more willing people are to believe it? Seriously, spiders the size of Volkswagens meandering up from South America? Africanized bees, okay, that’s believable, and sadly, true; but giant Angolan Witch Spiders? Really?
Pandemics are defined as “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” (Merriam-Webster) Verbal pandemics are no less contagious. They spread from human contact, but unlike a disease, can infect 10 people at a time with one key-stroke. They proliferate unpredictably and can be virtually impossible to eradicate. Unfortunately, just like the Internet hoaxer, the hoax perpetrator denies responsibility and scoffs at the idea that he or she has any obligation to properly scrutinize the information passed along. Just as painful as accepting responsibility for the Internet gossiper is the difficulty in accepting that they have been hoodwinked; hence, the transfer of responsibility by “just passing it on.” Good thing they aren’t held to that standard by a judge or jury. Verifying whether an Internet rumor is true or false isn’t really that difficult. There are several on-line verification sites. My go-to site is generally Snopes.com; they have heard it all and offer corroboration on three levels: True, False and Mixture (part truth and part fiction). Hoax-slayer.com is also a reliable source for authenticating those pesky rumors about toilet snakes and venomous critters in the McDonald’s ball pit. It offers tips for spotting hoaxes, common scams, e-mail security tips and suggestions for responding to e-mail hoaxes.
Just asking yourself if you really believe the rumor is plausible can often help you evaluate your response.
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. (scams, giveaways)
- If it sounds too ridiculous to be true, it probably is. (photoshopped pictures, outrageous claims)
- If it sounds too scandalous to be true, well, it’s possible – but check it out before you pass it on.
And try not to take it too personally if you are the victim of an internet hoax or spurious e-mail. You’re in good company. But misinformation spreads like wildfire, and unfortunately, it seldom dies; it just continues to spread itself to the farthest corners of the planet. So, if you get an e-mail from Mufasa Mpopo in Nigeria sending condolences about Jackie Chan and asking you to donate money for flowers, don’t say you weren’t warned.
“Morgan Freeman Laughs Off Latest Death Hoax,” Oct. 24, 2012, http://www.aceshowbiz.com/news/view/00054875.html