"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” is the aphorism of consumer protection. A corollary for Internet stories might be: “If it sounds too far-fetched to be true, it probably is an urban legend, or its cousin, the glurge”. These false accounts that circulate via e-mail, blogs, and occasionally even an unwary “legitimate” news source go by many names and proliferate.
They are on my mind today because I received two from different sources yesterday. The first case was a purported “Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins Hospital” that the person who sent it wanted me to print out because she has e-mail but no printer. Because the forwarded e-mail was of poor quality, I set out to find the original source by cutting and pasting a phrase from the e-mail into Google. Voila! An urban legend unmasked. So I printed out the Snopes.com entry and sent that instead.
The second story – also unmasked via Snopes.com – involved a supposed foundation set up by Placido Domingo to help José Carreras when he had leukemia. I tried to find a URL or more information on the putative foundation. There was none. “¡Que raro!”, I thought, but a little more digging uncovered a notice from Carreras’ own foundation debunking this fictitious tale. This story had even been published in at least one regular newspaper.
So now my plea: Hermanos y hermanas, please don’t send me these anecdotes without engaging in some rudimentary fact-checking. Uncovering these two myths took me less than 5 minutes each. It’s not rocket science.
This being said, I want to point out that there are three ethically distinct categories:
1. Legitimate mistakes: We all make them sometimes in the news/blogging business. Even regular news sources get it wrong occasionally and the best fact-checker in the world won’t catch every error.
2. Apocryphal stories: These are tales that may or may not have happened but serve to illustrate a moral lesson. A recent example might be the story of the flight attendant who reseated the indigenous passenger to first class that appeared on the San Juan Diego Project blog. The main difference is that these stories, unlike urban legends, do not claim to be true and they don’t include specific real individuals or institutions that could easily be verified. They are essentially harmless.
3. Urban legends: These are disinformation and we need to stop passing them on. They range from manufactured outrage and associated action appeals (the non-existent “upcoming” movie depicting Jesus as a homosexual) to scare tactics (the HIV contaminated ketchup in fast food restaurants) to the libelous (the Domingo/Carreras story which also alleges a bitter animosity between the two tenors) to bad science (sugar does a lot of things but I’m reasonably certain it doesn’t “feed cancer cells”).
Three of the four urban legends I just cited were sent to me by people who are viewed as credible because of their positions in our community. Por favor, hermanos y hermanas, tomemos nuestras posiciones en serio. Que estas cadenas de correo electrónico con sus falsas promesas o amenazas y desinformación se terminen con nosotros. If you really want to be a believable leader, the chain letters, urban legends, and PowerPoints of Nuestra Madre Santísima -- She may have been Immaculate, but her PowerPoints are often laden with viruses, trojans, and other computer nasties -- should go no further than your recycle bin. In that way we can best honor the 8th Commandment and pass nothing along except the truth.