Internet rumors: Sorting fact from fiction (Proceedings)


Internet rumors are probably the most modern form of folklore (handed-down beliefs, stories, and customs), following on the heels of faxlore, xeroxlore, chain letters, and campfire stories.

What is an internet rumor?

Internet rumors are probably the most modern form of folklore (handed-down beliefs, stories, and customs), following on the heels of faxlore, xeroxlore, chain letters, and campfire stories. Internet rumors generally center around "urban legends" or "contemporary legends," stories widely disseminated as true (and often just plausible enough to be believed) about horrific, embarrassing, ironic or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person. These stories are written to be as believable as possible, and often contain precautionary advice on how to avoid a similar episode happening to you or your loved ones. These tales also tend to evolve in time due to embellishment and repetition; internet rumors in particular have a way of being resurrected months or years after the initial distribution, often with adjustments made to make them more plausible.

Anatomy of an internet rumor

     • Often is received via multiple Forwards and is never actually written by the person sending it to you.

     • Often have just enough truth to make them sound plausible on initial reading, but closer scrutiny can pick out logical inconsistencies or violations of common sense.

     • Geared more to persuade than inform by pushing emotional buttons. ("Don't let this happen to your pet!!!!")

     • Often have telltale phrases: "Forward this to everyone you know!!!" or "This is not a hoax!!!," etc.

     • Person actually mentioned in the story is always someone several times removed from the person sending the message ("my girlfriend's sister", "my sister's hairdresser"). This person is never named, nor are any corroborating bits of information (exact location, dates, times, etc.) included.


     • If references are named (which is extremely rare), they are often incorrect (e.g. a previous internet rumor relating to a 'new' strain of parvovirus purported to quote a 'prominent infectious disease veterinarian' at a well known institution—except that the person named was an orthopedic surgeon, and although he graduated veterinary school from that institution, he never was on faculty there).

Separating fact from fiction

     • Any of above should trigger skepticism and further investigation before taking as fact.

     • If the information is something you've never heard before or seen elsewhere in legitimate sources, be suspicious.

     • Check for subtle or not-so-subtle jokes embedded in the narrative.

     • Read carefully and verify any 'facts' through independent references.

     • Check trusted 'official' websites

     • Check websites that cover internet hoaxes



Some animal/veterinary-related internet rumors

      1. Scenario: Subject cleaned out aquarium with a new sponge and when he placed tropical fish back into aquarium, they died. Conclusion: Pot scrubbing sponges manufactured by Procter & Gamble contain a dangerous "derivative of... 2-4-D, more popularly known as Agent Orange" that can kill pets. (1999)

           a. False. Proctor & Gamble doesn't make sponges

           b. False. 2,4-D is not Agent Orange

           c. What form of 'derivative' of 2,4-D is in there (water??)

           d. Plausible. Fish died after being replaced in the aquarium following cleaning—possible if detergent was used and not completely rinsed out of aquarium.

      2. Scenario: Swiffer wet jet, which contains "a compound which is 'one molecule away' from antifreeze" cause liver failure and death in a German shepherd dog. (May 2004)

           a. False. Nothing in the ingredients of the Swiffer liquid poses risk of hepatotoxicity.

           b. False. If antifreeze or a closely related glycol were involved, would expect renal, not liver damage.

           c. False. Any molecule is 'one molecule away' from antifreeze.

      3. Scenario: Febreze is an aerosol product that contains zinc chloride which causes illness and deaths in pets. (1999)

           a. False. Febreze has always been marketed as a spray, not an aerosol.

           b. False. Formulations in the US after 1998 did not contain zinc chloride and the level of zinc chloride in the prior formulations was well below where toxicity would occur if the product was ingested.

           c. Plausible. Birds may develop respiratory issues if directly exposed to the spray, as they might with any heavily fragranced inhaled irritant.

      4. Scenario: Ultra Clorox bleach poses danger to pets and should not be used in households with pets because it contains sodium hydroxide, which is "LYE," which is not present in 'regular' bleaches.

           a. False. Compared to other bleaches, Ultra Clorox does not pose additional hazard to pets when used as directed.

           b. True. Ultra Clorox contains lye, as lye is a component of all bleaches.

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