While there are innumerable benefits to the Internet, one definite drawback is that it allows people to spread wacky rumors and sensationalist propaganda at light speed. Everybody receives those annoying email forwards, often from a well-meaning relative, where the premise seems, well, a little shady.
There are two clues I watch for:
1. The subject falls over itself to proclaim the urgency of the message (e.g. READ NOW, CAN’T MISS, HEY YOU, DUDE!, etc.)
2. The topic involves some diabolical company or perfectly commonplace activity that is causing widespread horrific deaths.
For instance, here is an email I received last night from a great-aunt:
PLEASE PLEASE READ THIS!
Here’s some reasons why we don’t allow cell phones in operating areas, propylene oxide handling and storage area, propane, gas and diesel refueling areas. The Shell Oil Company recently issued a warning after three incidents in which mobile phones (cell phones) ignited fumes during fueling operations.
(It goes on to describe the incidents with great glee.)
This qualifies as suspicious according to my made-up criteria. That’s where I turn to Snopes.com.
I searched for “cell phone and shell” to find the Urban Legends Reference Page on Fuelish Pleasures. Here, they not only debunk the Shell email specifically, but address it in the context of the rash of CellPhone + Gas = Asplode emails that have circulated since 1999.
As to the origins and credentials of the Snopes website, Wikipedia provides the best history Note: I would never use Wikipedia — or any encyclopedia — for the purpose of scholarly research, but for the purpose of a blog post about the history of a website, it contains a remarkable number of citations.
To plug some library sources, here are some of the articles that have quoted Snopes recently:
Felled by A Flapjack, Washington Post
Killer Tea — Not!, Manilla Standard
Bag-teria Alert, Washington Post
My favorite part of Snopes is that the couple behind the website, the Mikkelsons, are clearly skilled researchers. They strive to provide an unbiased stance and carefully cite their sources. Plus, their site is very well categorized, easy to search (even if the look of the site hasn’t changed much since the 90’s), and color-coded. Stories are graded Green for true, Red for false, and Yellow for undetermined.
In addition, if you browse Snopes newest postings daily, you can get the real scoop on all kinds of other false assumptions that you never knew you had. Huh, Dr. Pepper isn’t made of prunes? That rumble you hear? Paradigm shift.