The subject of rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends is an entertaining one. The value of studying them, however, is far more than entertainment. The lessons learned are important to life.
THE STUDY OF RUMORS HELPS US BE MORE ALERT TO FALSE INFORMATION IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES
The more we learn about Internet rumors, the more we should consider how many false tales we might be guilty of believing and passing along to others on a daily basis.
The Internet has been both the worst and the best thing that has happened to rumors. Worst because there has never been a more efficient and expansive way to communicate than through the Internet and through email so we hear more false stories than ever and pass them along to more people than ever. It’s also been the best, however, because we are more likely to learn that something is a false. We’ve all had the experience of forwarding what we thought was a timely, interesting, funny, or alarming email, then feeling the sting of five or six replies telling us the story is hogwash.
It should cause us to pause and consider other areas of truth or fiction. It should cause us wonder how often the same thing happens at home, with friends, or at work. It should encourage us to reassess what we hear and whether we pass it along to others..
For example, it’s a good policy that we never forward an email that isn’t as close to first-hand information as we can get. Even first-hand stories can still be a risk because some people lie, but at least the story we are telling is attributed to a particular source. The same should be true on a more personal level. If someone looks you in the eye and says, “I am cheating on my wife and have filed for divorce,” that’s first-hand information. If somebody says to you, “Joe told me he’s cheating on his wife and has filed for divorce,” that’s second-hand information, but still coming from someone who claims to have actually talked with Joe about it and whose credibility you can assess. However, when someone says, “Joe is cheating on his wife and has filed for divorce,” and that person either cannot tell you the exact source or says it came from somebody who told somebody else who is the best friend of somebody else, it shouldn’t be regarded as reliable enough to believe or repeat. If somebody tells you that a particular food causes cancer or that an insurance company is run by crooks, either invest the time in researching the truth of the matter, or just file the information somewhere in the back of your mind as interesting, but unconfirmed. The farther away a story gets from a first-hand source, the greater the risk that something about it is inaccurate.
I once had lunch with a man who had been a widely loved principal at a religious high school, but who had resigned his position because of an indiscretion with a female member of his staff. He had not committed adultery, but had become infatuated with this woman to the extent that his marriage and his performance on the job were affected by it. His wife caught them together during a romantic moment and everything hit the fan. He had admitted to the wrongdoing and voluntarily stepped down from his post.
During our lunch, I asked him how things were going and his answer was, “Rich, I don’t think I am ever again going to believe much of anything people tell me about other people.” He spent the rest of the lunch telling me how astonished he was that some of his closest and most valued friends and colleagues had heard and repeated stories about him that were shatteringly untrue. There were lurid accounts of how he and the woman had sneaked away on trips together and toured some of the sex capitols of the world. There were rumors that he had divorced his wife and married the other woman. There was a story on an Internet chat site that said he had not only divorced and remarried, but he had started a new cult-like seminar for the sexually inhibited. “The sad part,” he concluded, “is that to this day, not a single one of the people who has spread those rumors has called me directly to find out if they are true.”
The fable is told about the wise man whose reputation had been severely affected by a false story that had circulated about him. One of the people responsible for the story later regretted it and came to the wise man to ask his forgiveness and said he would do anything to try to make it right. The wise man told him to take a pillow to a steep cliff overlooking the country, rip open the pillow, scatter the feathers in the wind, and return. The repentant man came back and the wise man said, “Now, go collect every feather.” It was impossible to do and was the wise man’s way of illustrating the irretrievable consequences of spreading a falsehood.
THE STUDY OF RUMORS GIVES STRENGTH TO THAT WHICH IS TRUE IN OUR LIVES
It’s easy to fear that the more we learn about how much fiction there is around us, the less we might trust what we are told. The reality, however, is that despite the existence of misinformation, there are things that are true and the knowing the dynamics and characteristics of false stories can sometimes help us feel more confidence in the truth..
The study of rumors can even be strengthening to your faith. My own faith, for example, is Christianity. Some people think that faith is a “leap in the dark,” that you simply wake up one day and say, “this sounds like a nifty idea” and you go about the business of believing it. Christianity teaches, however, that God gives evidence of himself that is reliable enough to decide whether he’s there. He gives invitations for us to believe the evidence and all of life depends on whether we do. Sometimes, we have to wade through a lot of rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends about faith to get to what’s real, but it’s worth the pursuit. It’s very important to me, for instance, that Jesus is not an urban legend. Whereas rumors lack first-hand sources, the number of first-hand stories about Jesus from people who knew him is enormous and the kicker is how many of them were willing to die for it. Critics can speculate whether his followers were misled, but nobody can accuse them of participating in a hoax.
My interest in rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends is not just because they are interesting. It’s because they are a part of the important goal of getting as near to the truth as we can.