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Sunday, 19 April 2015

Urban legends and hoaxes

Some time ago I started writing a new blog about the assertion that a high proportion (8%-10%) of children in Western countries are not raised by their biological father, and in fact are not aware that their assumed biological father is not their real biological father. While doing research on this topic I discovered that this entire assertion is an urban legend (link 1, link 2) with a small core of truth in it.

This fraternity assertion was clearly based on statistical misinterpretation (e.g., Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."). Dr Philipp’s findings ("... that 30 per cent of the husbands could not have been the fathers of their children...") survived the test of time simply because they are shocking.

Examples of urban legends are:
- A news report claiming that Ringo Starr confirmed that the "real" Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a singer/bass player who looked and sounded just like him. (source)
- The kidney heist. (Source: link 1, link 2)
- The existence of snuff movies. (Source)

An urban legend is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true, and often possess horror implications that are believable to their audience. A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. (Wikipedia)

Both urban legends and hoaxes have three things in common: the message is (i) sensational, (ii) not true and (iii) may last very long through e-mail, social media and Internet. The main differences are that (i) urban legends leverage on feelings of disgust and horror and (ii) may contain some kind of core truth (e.g., Sgt. Pepper's reverse audio fragment "Paul is dead") and (iii) that urban legends lack a motive for personal or financial gain.

Recently, I received a WhatsApp from Kenya about a statement by the Australian PM (link 1link 2, link 3) regarding Muslims in Australia. This statement addressed hidden emotions inside the hearts and minds of non Muslims. I had seen it before and immediately knew it was a hoax.

Recently, I got a request forwarding a picture of a missing child to my contacts. Before bothering them with such a request, I did a reverse image search in Google Images to check its genuinity. The results (link 1, link 2, link 3) were clear: the missing child did not even exist. Just a (sick) hoax.

The nature of hoaxes is very diverse: academic, art world, marketing, political, religious, stock exchange, "warning" for computer viruses. Yet, its purpose is not: someone wants to gain (personally or financially) from spreading these false messages. Hoaxes can be recognised as they contain sensational news that is usually in the category "too good to be true".

On 13 December 2006, the French speaking public TV station in Belgium (RTBF) interrupted its regular programming for a news bulletin claiming that the Flemish parliament had issued a unilateral declaration of independence from the Kingdom of Belgium, mimicking the Belgian secession from the Netherlands some 175 years earlier. The Flemish secession hoax had been prepared over a period of 2 years under the codename BBB for Bye-bye Belgium. Prominent Belgian politicians condemned the report as "irresponsible."

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. (Marcus Aurelius)