You’ve probably seen that commercial with the girl who believes everything she sees on the Internet. It’s a State Farm commercial, but no one talks about it for insurance. They talk about it because the poor girl believes everything she sees online. It’s funny, but it’s also sad because it frequently happens in real life!
The Internet makes it really easy to get a lot of information. It also makes it easy for just about anyone to put information out there – whether it’s true or not – leading to more frequent incidents of people consuming untrue information as fact.
The trend now is intentionally putting content out there to see how far it gets. You’re probably familiar with Jimmy Kimmel’s elaborate pranks to keep the media honest, like the girl who set her apartment on fire while twerking. It went viral and made news headlines on several broadcast outlets and their websites. But did you know that before testing Internet gullibility was cool, I was doing it?
Let me start by backing up. I’ve always had really cold feet and hands. My feet get so cold that even sitting on them makes the rest of my body feel the cold, rather than my feet feeling the warmth. My mom told me years ago that I just have “Durham Feet,” and it’s probably the same poor circulation she and my mamaw have. You see, Durham was my great-granny’s last name, and a lot of the women in our family have cold feet. But in 2006, after I explained my “Durham Feet” to a boyfriend, he said it sounded like a legitimate condition. Facebook was relatively new and Twitter didn’t exist, but he had recently learned how to create Wikipedia entries, so we decided to see if anyone would believe it.
We created an entry for “Durham’s Foot, or cryopedis.” We developed a really nice, believable explanation for it. And it stayed there. It stayed there and it spread slowly across the Web for nearly five years. My mom, who was teaching college classes, used the article to show her students why Wikipedia wasn’t an acceptable source.
But apparently a lot of people seek explanations for their cold feet, because they shared “Durham’s Foot” widely. They shared it on Yahoo! Answers, wrote about it in Olympic blogs, discussed it on Reddit and posted it to other Wiki and dictionary sites. Wikipedia, as it becomes even more legitimate, is cleaning up its pages and has deleted the original entry. But “Durham’s Foot” has gone so far that I don’t even think I can get it back!
I do hope that anyone reading the article sought actual medical help if they needed it, as opposed to taking it at face value, but it does bring up an interesting question: How many people really consider the source or the content of something before they share it and believe it?
Consider these few tips when you read something online.
Who wrote it?
There are still people out there who believe a headline they read from The Onion. Even U.S. congressmen are susceptible to misinformation. That’s crazy to me, but not everyone knows that it’s satire. Know your source!
What does the whole story say?
The headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. Read the whole thing! You may find that the headline refers to one person’s opinion, not a proven fact.
Can you verify it somewhere else?
Really big news is often reported by multiple outlets, from blogs to broadcast news networks. Sometimes news is specific to an outlet, though, and that’s OK. But if you’re really skeptical of what you’re reading, see what else you can find on the subject. Think of it like getting a second opinion if your doctor recommends a serious surgery. You want to make sure it’s right before you do it. When in doubt, there are sources like Snopesdedicated to outing hoaxes.
Are you sure you want to share it?
You may be familiar with the recent Facebook “no religion” rumor, which has spread like wildfire over the past few weeks as users bought into a hoax that their accounts would be locked if they openly discussed religion. (It’s false.) Savvy Internet users probably noticed that Mark Zuckerberg’s name was misspelled on the photo that accompanied the rumor, and critical thinkers realized it would be really bad strategy for Facebook. But many people took it at face value. Know your facts before you share it!
Got any favorite Internet jokes or viral stories? Share them in the comments!