Breaking the Cycle of Rumors, Hoaxes, and Urban Legends

Americans love a good story, regardless of whether or not it’s true.

P.T. Barnum dazzled early American audiences with what he often advertised as genuine fakes — and the public ate it up.

Throughout the 20th century, urban legends and hoaxes abounded. From the great cabbage hoax to moon-landing conspiracies, commonly believed falsehoods entered the collective “knowledge” of humanity.

But studying and debunking these falsehoods has been around just as long, even being one of the first studied phenomenons within the modern field of psychology.

Credible journalism has occasionally taken a stand against these collective falsehoods. The Boston Herald published a front-page weekly article throughout the 1940s debunking popular rumors and stories of public interest.

With the invention of the Internet, spreading false information has become epidemic.

Even when thoroughly debunked, many rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends still remain and spread, often with people belligerently and defiantly defending them, even when faced with overwhelming evidence.

Why Breaking the Cycle Matters

Some falsehoods are harmless, others are outright dangerous; some are made up for fun, others deliberately perpetrated to cause harm, outrage, or embarrassment.

Gordon Allport and Leo Postman were the first psychologists to examine the mechanics behind falsehoods in 1947. America was entering the Cold War; the deliberate spreading of falsehoods was considered a matter of national security.

Allport and Postman’s research found what they called the Law of Rumor. The strength of a falsehood was created by two factors: the importance the recipient places on the falsehood and the ambiguity of evidence relating to the topic.

In general, people don’t remember rumors (or other falsehoods) about things they don’t care about — the mind just purges the information like any other data that is perceived as nonessential.

The stronger a person’s feelings on the subject, the stronger the falsehood is remembered.

Later researchers found that believability is based on a person’s inherent knowledge on the subject, their own confirmation bias, and whether or not believing the falsehood satisfies an emotional need.

This is at least part of the reason that political falsehoods (e.g. birther conspiracies, etc) are so popular; people deeply hold the opinions and there are always shades of gray when it comes to political facts.

But this is also why we should place an interest in thoroughly debunking and vetting our opinions — because these falsehoods often create within us powerful impressions that motivate us to action.

The great cabbage hoax is one of the oldest political hoaxes still perpetuated.

It takes different forms, but almost all of them are something like this:

Pythagorean theorem: 24 words
The Lord’s Prayer: 66 words
Archimedes’ Principle: 67 words
The Ten Commandments: 179 words
The Gettysburg Address: 286 words
The Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words
The U.S. government regulations on the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words

This hoax has been traced by researchers back to at least the 1950s during the price-stabilization policies, but others contend that it came out of the rationing laws of the 1940s.

In general, though, this hoax follows the model: people had a vested interest in perpetuating it (anger at government intervention, harm done by rationing, etc.) and — during this time period — government laws and regulations were not easily accessible by the average person.

But many organizations have fallen victim to this hoax, including Mobile Oil, who featured the “facts” of the hoax in an advertisement complaining about government regulations.

Even after CBS News debunked the hoax in 1977, the hoax still spread.

The actual government regulation is quite a bit less verbose — only 1,249 words.

While this is definitely a “fun” hoax, the damage it does to our psyche is clear. It reinforces a confirmation bias in that we “know” that the government excessively regulates, makes complicated laws, and doesn’t mind its own business.

Debunking 101

The absolute greatest falsehoods are hidden within a kernel of truth. Almost all political rumors and hoaxes rely on this central tenet.

The key to making propaganda work is to produce a product that most people will automatically believe, and not spend the time or effort to verify.

Snopes has made a reputation as the “go-to” online source for debunking, but their research into topics occasionally gets called into question.

What steps can we personally take to debunk our daily diet of media and information?

1. Accept that everything you hear, even from your favorite, most trusted source is not completely true.

2. Be willing to listen to opposing view points. If your opinions solely rest on single sources, books, or organizations, you are likely to fall for falsehoods.

3. Go to the source! Especially with political material.

4. Don’t automatically share or forward in social media without actually reviewing the facts — respect your reputation!

In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”

Within minutes of its release, social media and the press were buzzing with rumors of the Obama administration classifying veterans as terrorists — hundreds of memes on the Internet have highlighted this claim.

Many sources, including a report from Fox News, characterized the report as unjustly singling out right-wing values (including abortion, immigration), ignoring Islamic terrorism threats, and characterizing veterans as terrorists.

So what is entailed in actually debunking these claims?

The DHS report is freely available online from numerous sources, and is only nine and a half pages long. The average American reads at a 300 wpm pace, meaning that this report would take a little under 10 minutes to read with comprehension.

In constrast, the Fox News segment was about 5 minutes long; it doesn’t take that much time to actually verify the facts!

Claim #1: Unjustly singling out conservatives:

The first full sentence of the report reads:

“This product is one of a series of intelligence assessments published by the Extremism and Radicalization Branch to facilitate a greater understanding of the phenomenon of violent radicalization in the United States.”

This should immediately alert the reader that there are more reports about different subjects.

In particular, one of these reports was issued four months earlier, titled “Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade.”

This report singled out environmentalists, animal rights activists, left-wing economic extremists, and anarchists, all of whom are increasingly using cyber-attacks to electronically “shut down” their target’s operations.

While these attacks are seen by their perpetrators as “non-violent,” the economic destruction they create is immense, damaging businesses, workers’ salaries, and consumers.

Interestingly, none in the media cried foul about the left-wing extremist report when it was released.

Claim #2: Unjustly attacking right-wing values:

Abortion, for instance, is only mentioned twice in the report — both instances with similar context:

“Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

The highlighting of single-issue terrorists was hardly unjustified.

Just over seven weeks later, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was assassinated at his church in front of friends and family by a member of several right-wing extremist groups.

Likewise, the report was correct in predicting a spike in anti-immigration violence and murders (See this case).

Claim #3: Ignoring Islamic extremists:

This claim is borderline absurd; almost all of our efforts in combating terrorism are focused on the current Islamic extremist threat, and has been for the past 14 years.

But from the very first page, the report makes it clear that this series was only focusing on domestic terrorism, something we also need to focus on.

While the 9/11 attacks took more lives than all other attacks in America combined, there have still been hundreds of attacks carried out on American soil, with over 90 percent being non-Islamic and domestic in nature.

Claim #4: Veterans are being classified as terrorists:

Wording is everything, and looking at the report gives a much different view:

“Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”

The report isn’t saying that veterans are terrorists; the report is saying that veterans are one of the targets of extremist groups for exploitation.

This claim is not without precedent. In 1995, the single largest act of domestic terrorism was perpetrated by a highly-decorated veteran who had been befriended and radicalized by extremist groups.

This example highlights the absolute need to go to the source when someone states that a report (or anything else) says something “outrageous.”

Social media is an awesome tool for spreading uncensored information across the globe, but its growth places the responsibility on the individual to substantiate claims before spreading information further.

A large chunk of the partisan divide is caused by faulty paradigms of the other side’s actions and beliefs (e.g. tin-man conservatives or straw-man liberals).

The problems of America won’t be solved until people are willing to cast off these faulty paradigms, and not indulge in the basic emotions of outrage and shock value that these rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends thrive upon.

We won’t always see issues that America faces the same. But we should at least be looking at real issues, and not made up stories.

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