Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is an Email or Facebook Post Real, a Hoax, or Outdated?

I’ve noticed quite a number of e-mails and nowadays more often Facebook posts have a very strong whiff of male cattle fecal matter. Therefore for the sake of everyone’s sanity I’ve written out these tips that I hope will make the air just a little bit more hygienic. While I’m at it I’m also including tips on stuff that may not be BS per se but have become outdated. Note that having a few of the below doesn’t automatically make something inaccurate, but these should at least set off some alarm bells, Many of these overlap in some ways but have some nuance that I felt was worth pointing out separately.

1.      The information is badly sourced. Either there’s no source listed at all or if there is, there’s no link or other proof that it came from the source. You cannot even assume that a post that claims to have info that has been verified by Snopes really does have material that Snopes has verified.
2.      Unsourced percentages in particular deserve special mention. If you see a lot of percentages but no source, the percentages may have either been taken out of thin air or be misrepresented.
3.      The information is designed to evoke a strong emotional response. This isn’t always a bad thing but strong emotions can sometimes cloud judgement.  A well written piece will state the facts and let them trigger the emotions. A bogus piece will usually make the facts secondary to the emotion.
4.      The post asks you to share it. If something is factual, and something the public should know about, chances are, people will share the information without being asked. If the post has to ask you to share, there may be a reason you wouldn’t otherwise do so.
5.      The post tries to guilt trip you into sharing the post, trying to make you feel terrible if you don’t pass along the information. This is basically a combination of points 3 and 4; if the author is doing this, there is likely something they really don’t want you to figure out before spreading their information.
6.      The post feels like it has an axe to grind. If you get the sense that the author has a vendetta against a group, organization, or whatever, it’s possible that they are skewing or making up facts to target whoever they see as the enemy.
7.      The post is about a hot button topic. If it’s about a topic that a number of people are really POed about at the moment (e.g. immigration, religion, animal cruelty) it’s worth pay extra attention to the facts presented and trying to verify them.
8.      The math doesn’t feel like it would add up. Here’s where emotions are actually a good thing: if your gut tells you that the stats don’t feel right (e.g. a calendar pattern not recurring for over 100 years; more on this in a separate blog post), it may be worth doing the math and see what actually comes up.
9.      A unsourced comment is attributed to a well-spoken celebrity. Right or wrong, an opinion from Morgan Freeman will carry more weight than a stranger or even a friend or a friend. But did the celebrity really say it?
10.   A post is a funny incident. Lots of humour refers to real incidents, and of course a lot of posts are intended as gags from the start. But unfortunately a lot of strange but true stuff ultimately proves to be strange and untrue.
11.   The post comes with a photo. Photos appeal to emotions and therefore are sometimes doctored or taken out of context so that the reader gets so steamed up about the image that they fail to properly consider the evidence.
12.   The post has emotion laden font. Is the font bold, large sized, etc. in key emotional parts of the text, even beyond the title?
13.   The post is regarding non-local missing person/animal. Usually these start out accurate, but by the time they go beyond the area of disappearance, the person or animal has been found. These are generally not hoaxes (some are but not usually), just outdated information.
14.   A Facebook post indicates that you will gain something or not lose something if you click Share and/or post a statement on your wall. In some cases it involves an individual or group that simply doesn’t have access to your Facebook account. And if they do (e.g. Facebook themselves) it is unlikely they’re monitoring your page that closely. Statements on your wall cannot ward off legal matters (though obviously they can be used as evidence) and there are limited circumstances where you’re going to get free stuff from a stranger.

Again, not all of these in of themselves are proof a post is false. It just means it needs to be verified. There are a number of ways:
a.      Visit sites devoted to debunking urban legends. Snopes is the best known one but there are others. If using Snopes, I recommend having a pop-up blocker turned on.
b.      Do a keyword search in a search engine, the keywords being the gist of the post and the word “hoax”. This brings the confirmed hoaxes to the top of the results. Also, even if something turns out to be real, chances are the search engine will also find a few results that don’t use the hoax keyword.
c.      The above two are usually as far as I go, but you can also try the previous step but without the word “hoax” and see if any of the results are from actual newspapers/news shows.
d.      If the suspicious post claims a source, you can visit the source noted and see if the information is in fact on the source site.

So practice smart sharing everyone.  When in doubt don’t pass it along. After all, there are plenty of funny jokes, cute animal photos, and, yes, legitimate news out there to share without passing along misinformation.

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