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Misinformation, Fake News, and Urban Legends

Fake news is highly topical just now, least of all due to President Trump’s infamous speeches and prolific tweets. It is easy to think that he is talking mince but maybe, once in a while, he is not wrong – who knows?

camper vanI was at a networking meeting last week when I was reminded by one of the attendees of the story of the guy who successfully sued the manufacturers of his motorhome because he crashed when, having set the cruise control to 70mph, he left the driving seat to make a cup of coffee. The motorhome, of course, according to the story, went off the road and overturned. He was subsequently awarded a humungus amount of cash by the court.

Despite the very low probability that he would have survived a crash at that speed, just how likely is that someone could be so stupid? Or that the courts would be so idiotic (well maybe the law is an ass!)

Another story was about a mother who was awarded a massive sum after she broke an ankle when she tripped over a toddler who was running amok in a store. The punch line is, of course, that the child in question was her own! Strangely enough this story was included in an episode of the TV drama Boston Legal (“Tabloid Nation,” original air date 8 April 2008).

So why are we so ready to believe in such nonsense?

Well, generally because it tends to reinforce our built-in prejudices – something the scientific community would call “confirmation bias”. In this case the stories illustrate how daft the legal system is – usually aimed at Health & Safety laws, often aimed at the USA legal system, where litigation seems to us Brits to be particularly aggressive. Something we all “know to be true.”

Great stories and who wouldn’t want them to be true? And, even if proven to be false, who cares – they’re just a bit of fun, right?

The trouble is that when we stop questioning things, we start to believe stuff that is simply not true and the more, shall we say unprofessional, marketing companies profit from our gullibility.

The Internet has made the spread of these so-called Urban Myths much faster and wider than ever before and Facebook in particular seems to be rife with hoaxes and untruths like the recent one that warns not to read posts by a particular person or he will hack you (not possible). The goal seems to be to get us share it with as many people as we can.

But the Internet also provides a ready means to check them out – and I would urge you do so before deciding to pass on a funny, interesting, or possibly scary, anecdote.

The website is an excellent resource for quickly checking whether a particular story is fact or fiction. See for the truth about the two stories mentioned here and more besides. It can be really interesting, and much more fun, when you discover that the unlikely story you just heard is actually true!

We used to say, “don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” Perhaps now it must be “don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” (or hear at networking meetings!)

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