Have you seen the one about “Cough CPR”? This e-mail arrives in your inbox one day, outlining a type of do-it-yourself heart attack therapy should you ever find yourself having a cardiac event while driving alone in the car. And a cardiologist allegedly advises you to forward this important e-mail to other people right away in order to save lives. The cardiologist, however, is not named, nor is there any reference to any medical institution.
Or how about this e-mail headlined: “Cancer Update from John Hopkins!”
“AFTER YEARS OF TELLING PEOPLE CHEMOTHERAPY IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRY AND ELIMINATE CANCER, JOHN HOPKINS IS FINALLY STARTING TO TELL YOU THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE WAY.”
What follows is a long collection of cancer prevention and treatment tips, supposedly endorsed by Johns Hopkins, the world-famous research university, medical school and hospital based in Baltimore. But none of the claims in the message were actually published or in any way endorsed by Johns Hopkins. In fact, Johns Hopkins has released the following statement denying any involvement:
E-MAIL HOAX REGARDING CANCER
“Information falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins called, “CANCER UPDATE FROM JOHN HOPKINS” describes properties of cancer cells and suggests ways of preventing cancer. Johns Hopkins did not publish the information, which often is an email attachment, nor do we endorse its contents.
“The email also contains an incorrect spelling of our institution as ‘John’ Hopkins; whereas, the correct spelling is ‘Johns’ Hopkins”
So that might be your first clue. When hoaxers can’t spell the name of the world-famous institution they claim to represent, you know something is fishy.
“Pass this on!” This phrase and others like it are also telltale signs of an e-mail hoax. From the blatant: “Send this to everyone you know!” to the more subtle: “Forward this important information to the people you care about!” – any e-mail that demands to be forwarded to the inboxes of your friends and family deserves your skepticism. Particularly if said e-mail has the following characteristics:
The e-mail message makes you feel concerned, angry or intrigued and eager to do something about it. E-mail hoaxes are designed to engage your emotions and motivate you to take action – the intended action invariably being to forward these stories to every name in your address book.
The original sender is not identified. If an e-mail is anonymous or has been forwarded so many times that you can’t trace it back to the original sender, it is most likely untrue. Even if the message claims to have originated with a legitimate organization, unless and until you can verify the source, be very wary of believing it.
The timing is vague. An e-mail hoax or rumour will usually reference something that happened “last week” or “recently” but won’t provide a specific date or timetable. This is to make the misinformation seem important and relevant for an indefinite period of time. In the world of e-rumours, the less specific, the longer the lifespan.
You are pressed with an urgent and one-sided viewpoint. Again, the primary purpose of an e-mail hoax is to prompt you to hit “Send” before you can think critically about the information. All CAPITAL LETTERS, excessive exclamation points (!!!) and overly dramatic language are tip-offs that someone is trying to appeal to your emotions – not your ability to reason.
The e-mail suggests a dire and widespread threat – that you have never heard before. Health scares often fall into this category. Perhaps you’ve come across one of the now infamous hoaxes linking antiperspirants or cosmetics/shampoo with cancer. Sometimes it’s just a prank. Sometimes it’s an underhanded way to malign a particular person, product or company in order to promote another. Regardless, forwarding unconfirmed rumours only serves to promote needless fear-mongering. Don’t do it.
“This is not a hoax.” This usually means: yes, it is.