On rumors, hoaxes, and social media

For a change, I feel it is time that I write an entry about something I did that wound up making me look dumb, or at least below my usual level of intelligence. To be fair about it, I was not the only one to fall for it.

There was an incident among my Facebook friends where someone cheerily spread a hoax involving the Facebook group “Becoming a Father or Mother Was the Greatest Gift of My Life.” This particular variant of the well-documented hoax was falsely attributed to Mike Woods, a news reporter for Fox 5 WNYW in New York City, who in fact did not report this story.

Yet, the person in question passed it along with no verification under the guise of “better safe than sorry.” It takes literally minimal effort to verify the veracity of something of this nature, and all one needs to remember is snopes.com and one’s favorite Web search engine, usually one of Ask.com, Bing, Google, or Yahoo.

In that discussion I said something too good to remain confined to Facebook and eventually disappear, so I’ll repost it here:

A lot of the other hoaxes cite “someone at (IBM/Apple/Intel).” One does surprisingly well to assume it’s the janitor until and unless that “someone” is identified by name and position within the company.

Fast forward to Saturday night/Sunday morning, when rumors of the passing of Ronnie James Dio began to circulate on Twitter. I waited until what I thought was a reputable source (in this case, metalunderground.com) reported it, then posted it to my Twitter account as confirmed. At that time, Ronnie was still alive and his wife was trying to counteract the then-false rumors that he had passed away. As soon as I found out the news was in fact untrue, I tweeted a correction, going as far as to send a direct message on Twitter to someone who expressed dismay at my report. This was at around 2am Houston time.

Of course, Ronnie passes away for real at 7:45am that morning, the news outlets all report it that day. Not surprisingly, I really feel like an idiot, but I take consolation in knowing that several otherwise reliable news outlets (including a Houston Press music reporter) fell for the initial bogus death report as well. And maybe I was a bit too hasty to pass along the news, and should have waited for a more credible confirmation. I also misreported it as a hoax, when in fact a more accurate statement would have been a premature death report and/or an exaggeration of Ronnie’s true condition. Then again, when I’m this far from the source, I can’t tell the two apart.

The lessons we can all take away from this?

  1. Don’t be too quick to pass along news. Consider your sources carefully before passing something along. When in doubt, check it out first. Snopes.com, search engines, reputable news sites, even trusted friends if you know they do not just pass along any old rumor.
  2. In the age of social media, news travels that much faster. It also means rumors can travel that much faster. Think before you hit send.
  3. We all make mistakes.
  4. Don’t exaggerate the condition of someone near death, especially someone famous. It may get picked up and turned into a rumor.