Research a Rumor


The next time you open something that looks like it just might be an e-chain letter, remember this golden rule of cyber etiquette: When in doubt, check it out. Here are three quick ways to do some basic fact checking – BEFORE you send to a friend:

  1. Get the official word. Contact a reliable source, such as a government agency, a professional society, a company or an organization with expertise on the subject. Many of these entities address rumors on their websites.

  2. Verify the source. When it comes to sorting fact from fiction, this is your basic litmus test. If you can’t easily verify the original source of an e-mail – either the original sender or the alleged source of the information – it’s most likely an email hoax. Keep in mind that savvy hoaxters often falsely attribute misinformation to a legitimate source. This trend has been described as “false attribution syndrome.”

    It’s up to you to verify that the alleged source is the actual source. Here’s how. Check the organization’s website. If a reputable organization has published information, endorsed a position or warned about a health risk, chances are, you’ll be able to find evidence of this on the organization’s website. If not, you can always use the website’s “contact us” feature to submit the rumor and request a response.

    Some hoaxes claim to be based on television news stories or are written to sound like news articles. Most news outlets post recent stories, so you can check them out. Of course, not everything that makes its way into the news is 100 percent accurate, but at least you can verify that a legitimate news source covered the story.

    Remember that hoaxters can be very clever. Be wary of any reference that is too vague to verify such as “a friend,” “a doctor” or “channel 4.” As a rule of thumb, if you can’t verify the source, it probably isn’t true.

  3. Visit a myth-busting website that lets you search by key words or phrases. This is the fastest way to find out if someone has already done the research. If your topic turns up, you’ll have more information in seconds. If it doesn’t, you can always submit a new rumor for review. These myth-busting sites have searchable archives. Consider bookmarking them for future reference.

Search before you send. People who retransmit unverified information often believe they are upholding a societal duty because the new communication seems like an active response to a potentially important issue. Yet it is actually passive (and frequently less beneficial) when compared to what is actually required: the more engaged activity of fact checking.