Is There a Way of Knowing Whether a Story is False?

Are there common characteristics to eRumors, hoaxes, and urban legends that can tip us off that they may not be true?

I used to confidently say yes and there are some factors about eRumors that are common, but, in my view, it has become more difficult to tell. I used to trust my “baloney detector” but even those of us who pay attention to this stuff on a daily basis are sometimes fooled. That is one of the main reasons came into being. There are so many people on the Internet who are cautious about what eRumors they believe and who decide to forward one to their friends because it sounds authentic or came to them from a trusted source…and who end up enthusiastically spreading what turns out to be a false tale. It can get so embarrassing that many people just stop reading any forwarded emails or make it a policy to never pass them along. Still, there is one that comes along from time to time that we feel so sure about and seems so important, that we make an exception, and end up burned again.

The only way we can really be sure about an eRumor is to check it out such as visiting

Still, in retrospect, there will be some factors in common in eRumors that turn out not to be true.


The most common ingredient of a false tale is that it is what urban legend expert Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand calls a “friend of a friend” story. There are either no facts that would make it possible to check it out, or the source of the story is described only vaguely. “This happened to the closest friend of my grade school teacher…” or, “A famous educator recently said…”

Urban legends commonly lack the classic details of “who, what, where, when, and why.” If we receive an email with what would otherwise be an important or interesting topic, but it is lacking in specifics, we should regard it suspiciously.

An example is a warning that is frequently circulated on the Internet that there is a motion picture being planned that will portray Jesus as a homosexual. All the email says is that somebody somewhere at sometime or another is going to make this movie, then asks the reader to add his or her name to the bottom of the email and forward it to as many people as possible. There is nothing in the message that indicates who is planning the movie, where or when. There is no studio, director, or organization to send the protest to. It couldn’t be more vague, yet we’ve gotten numerous examples of the rumor with more than hundreds of names added along the way. Another basic question, of course, is who is going to forward the names and to whom? (That particular rumor, by the way, is about 20 years old.)

What makes false stories even more difficult to detect is that some of them do seem to include details. They are frequently wrong, however, and sometimes actually fabricated. For example, there was a rumor that HIV-infected syringe needles were being found in gas pump handles in Jacksonville, Florida. The email named a particular officer of the “Jacksonville, Florida Police Department,” and listed statistics of how many people had been infected with HIV or had died. It gave the story the feel of documentation. The officer did not exist, however, and neither did the police department. Jacksonville is actually served by a sheriff’s office and they’ve never heard of the officer whose name was in the email. That story was neither an urban legend nor a rumor. It was an intentional hoax and the writer put as much detail in it as possible so the story would seem authentic.


One of the prime reasons false tales have long lives is that we all love to tell a “wow” story. There are sensational things that happen in real life and talking about them is natural. The false tales need to sound just true enough to possibly be authentic, and sensational enough to merit retelling. They may be humorous, such as the story of the man who ran off to Europe with his secretary, called his wife back home and told her to sell the Mercedes and send him the money, so she advertised it for sale for five dollars, and sent it to him just as he asked. Or they may be alarming such as the widely circulated false eRumor that says congress is about to tax emails on the Internet in order to recoup lost postage costs. Virtually all eRumors have the “wow” factor.


One of the greatest fuels for false stories is when they trigger terror, prejudice, revulsion, or just give us the creeps. Tales that have a high “shiver factor” are almost guaranteed to get passed around. An otherwise dull day can be effectively punctuated by telling the story that someone ate a taco from a fast-food joint that had cockroach eggs in it and they later hatched in her mouth, or that anti-perspirants clog skin pores and cause cancer. There are also horrifying stories such as the mother who momentarily loses her two year old child across the Mexican border then less than an hour later discovers that he had been killed, gutted, and his body stuffed with cocaine in order to smuggle the drugs into the U.S. inside of what appeared to be a sleeping child.

Other stories are essentially racist. One common urban legend is about a woman who ends up alone on an elevator with two men of a different race. Something happens on the elevator that momentarily frightens the woman and she fears that she’s going to be robbed or raped. It turns out to be a misunderstanding and, in fact, the two men are celebrities who get a laugh out of her alarm. The story has a theme, however, that people are afraid of the members of a particular race because they might be robbers and rapists.


False stories can not only frighten or alarm us, but can also seem confirm our fears, predictions, prejudices, and expectations. They can be a satisfying “I told you so.”

An email got started about Bill Clinton’s U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that had an “I told you so” element that appealed to her critics. It claimed that in a national television interview, she gave a description of Born Again, Bible-believing, church-going Evangelical Christians but said those were the characteristics of people who belonged to a cult. The story was not true, but was, in many people’s minds, “just what she would say” so it it was widely circulated by many who never thought twice about whether it was true.


A large number of false stories have aspects that just don’t fit reality and which ought to be a red flag about their credibility.

An example is a rumor that got started after the tragic crash of an Alaska Airlines jet off the coast of California in 1999, killing all who were on board. Almost immediately, an email story started being circulated that said a pastor’s wife aboard the plane spent nine minutes on the public address system just before the plane crashed, helping passengers make peace with God. These details were said to have come from a pilot who had heard the cockpit voice recordings recovered from the crash site. Later, the actual cockpit voice recordings were released publicly and the rumor was proven false, but even before that, the story seemed unlikely. What professional airline crew in the midst of an in-flight emergency and who was preparing the passengers for a possible crash landing would hand the P.A. microphone over to any passenger at all, much more for nine minutes?

Another classic urban legend says an executive of the Procter and Gamble company appeared on national television to say he was a Satanist, that all the profits from the company were going to Satanism, and that there weren’t enough Christians to prevent it. The story is false and no such TV appearance ever occurred, but how likely is it that the head of a major American corporation would make such a nationwide announcement? If he did, how likely would it be that we wouldn’t hear about it except through an underground email? If the story doesn’t quite sound right, it may not be.


One of the fascinating patterns of some false stories is that they will appeal to you to do some noble act such as forward emails to help pay for surgery for a child or solicit your help in finding a missing person…then will try to motivate you to do it by dumping guilt on your head in an insulting way. There will be statements such as, “It will take only two minutes to forward this to all your friends, and if you don’t, you’re a cold-hearted, self-centered person.” Most reasonable people who are appealing for help will not package their requests in that way.


Any email that says you are going to benefit financially by forwarding it to others is either a chain letter, which is virtually worthless and probably illegal, or is a hoax.

Chain letters sound potentially successful on the surface. They ask you to add your name to a list of other names at the bottom of the letter and to send money to some of the names on the list. In a few days, according to the email, you’ll receive lot’s of money. The problem is it seldom works out that way and even if the chain were unbroken, the only people who would benefit are those who were at or near the beginning of the chain. Additionally, if the U.S. mail is used in any way, it is a violation of the law. Chain letters that use the mail and ask for money or anything of value are illegal under postal regulations. Almost all of these emails also include some bizarre rationale why their particular chain letter is an exception and is not illegal.

There has also been a rash of emails that promise goods or money for yourself or others in return for you forwarding the email to your friends. Some of them claim that a wealthy individual or a major corporation has promised to donate a certain amount of money for each forwarded email to a worthy cause such as a child’s surgery. Others claim major corporations will pay you for forwarding the email and in a few days, you’ll receive a large check or some valuable product in the mail. Those are hoaxes. At the present time, there is no practical way for a corporation to keep track of the pathways of tens of thousands of forwarded emails.

The only way we can tell for sure whether a story is true or false is to check it out, but these are some of the red flags that ought to at least prompt us to be suspicious and avoid passing it on to others.


Of all the daily news stories, magazine articles, research results and other data that are generated in the world, only certain stories qualify as being passed from person to person. Why? In an age when there is more information available to us than ever before, what determines what will be circulated as an eRumor?

One of the most significant qualities of an eRumor is that it is information that people feel is not going to be known any other way except through the eRumor underground. It feels like “insider” information that is somehow being missed by mainstream sources. It has the quality of “The establishment media or experts aren’t going to tell you this, so listen carefully and repeat it to everyone you know.” At best, this reflects the feeling that my circle of friends, my community, or my special interest group needs to share something unique to us. At worst, it appeals to those who think the media, the educators, the politicians, and the doctors are all part of a conspiracy to hide the truth.

With the advent of the Internet and the convenient and lightening-fast way that people can communicate by email, the eRumor has become the underground news service of the world. I don’t think that members of the mainstream have quite grasped how much that is the case. If something seems urgent, alarming, or inspiring enough, it can be established as fact in the minds of millions of people in a matter of hours.

This was never more clear than in the days following the terrorist attacks on the United States in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. That world-changing event created a massive community of people who shared shock, grief, outrage, hurt, and hope and some of the most significant expressions of that were via eRumors. While the world media kept us all informed of the events of that fateful day, the eRumor underground was busy telling us things that that we weren’t hearing on the radio or television, some of which were true stories that we collectively needed to share. For example, within a week of the attacks, one of the most widely circulated eRumors was about an airline captain who, after closing the doors of the airplane for a flight, got on the P.A. system and told the passengers that if anybody on the plane tried to hijack it, they had his permission to take matters into their own hands and to overwhelm the hijackers with sheer numbers. He told them to do anything they could such as throw trays, bags, silverware, or anything else handy. That unlikely story turned out to be true and the captain’s “let’s not just sit and do nothing” attitude was applauded and somehow resonated with what we were all feeling. It felt empowering and sensible. The hijackers of September 11 had demonstrated to us that they were willing to kill everybody on the planes and turn them into guided missiles to kill other people on the ground, so there was no reason to avoid the risk of injury or death in trying to stop them. All the previous rules of caution in hijackings were obsolete. Passengers were willing to take the chance of individually being killed if it meant that a couple of hundred on the plane and thousands on the ground could be saved. Although that story did get featured in at least one local newspaper and through a wire service reporter, it was obscure to the nation as a whole until it got published by the eRumor underground, the nation’s “insider newspaper.”

Most of the stories that got circulated during that time were not true and some of the most sensational were actually hoaxes, such as “The Last Picture from Atop the World Trade Center,” but they did reflect the needs, moods, and hopes of millions of people.

In fact, a very interesting and important event happened after the terrorist attacks that demonstrated the power of the eRumor underground. A grass-roots movement got started via email that urged that the Friday after the attacks be a day of remembrance. It was suggested that people light candles and at 7:00pm in each of their own time zones stand in front of their homes or on the streets of their cities to honor both those who had lost their lives in the attacks and the courage of the people who had tried to rescue them or were helping their families. The event was entirely inspired by email and was not sponsored by a particular organization or promoted via major media. The result was that in almost every community, the aching heart of America was expressed by people holding candles on street corners and exchanging cheers and the honks of car horns as others drove by.

The eRumor is a fascinating and important reflection of the most commonly shared hopes, fears, and beliefs of people who have the need to share those with one another.