Using the anchor of critical thought to examine our world

Where there is history, there are myths and hoaxes, and Pennsylvania is no stranger to these three. Pennsylvania’s famous names and historical places clutter the pages of travel brochures and are frequent stars of cable documentaries.

With so much history, folklore and myth arise. Many historical myths are harmless but it’s interesting to discover the truth behind every story.

For example, the Pennsylvania Dutch are not really Dutch, and no one really knows when or how the Liberty Bell got its famous crack. But these postscripts to history are nothing more than amusing conversation pieces.

So when does a myth begin to cause harm? Look no further than your own email inbox for the answer. Since the advent of the home computer and the world wide web, internet users have found email and websites an efficient way to communicate and spread news. But with this new information superhighway came those looking to profit and/or misinform.

Viral emails are called “viral” due to their ability to replicate and spread quickly throughout the population (like a biological virus). They can be videos, jokes, adult material, chain letters, and in many cases, hoaxes and scams. We’ve all found several versions of the Nigerian Scam, the Lottery Winner, and the Get Rich Working From Home offers in our inboxes. By now, it ought to be obvious that these are rackets.

However, many emails might cause real people or businesses actual harm. A good example of this is the Shady Maple Boycott Hoax. Anyone who lives in or has visited Lancaster County is probably familiar with Shady Maple Smorgasbord, a Pennsylvania Dutch buffet restaurant (and farmer’s market, grocery store and general store complex). If one grew up in the area, you might remember the original anti-military rumors spread during the first Gulf War, but during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the hoax was revitalized by the use of viral email. The hoax began recirculating in 2005 stating that the staff at Shady Maple refused to serve a uniformed war veteran. Here is a snippet from a circulated email:

About two weeks ago friends of the McGarveys went to take a gentleman, who had just returned from serving our country in Iraq, out to eat at Shady Maple. This gentleman (I apologize for not knowing his name) proudly wore his military uniform to Shady Maple. Shady Maple said they would not serve the man in the military uniform. They said they absolutely will not serve soldiers. These friends were angered and in shock at what was happening. They went through the restauraunt telling other customers what was happening. Most of the customers got up and walked out of the restaurant not finishing their meals.

Shady Maple is owned and staffed by followers of the Mennonite faith, as are many tourist attractions in Lancaster County. One common aspect of the Amish and Mennonite faith is pacifism. Because of this, the rumor seemed plausible and began to spread across the region, resulting in bad press for a fine establishment. Sadly, the organization has had to add a page to their own website defending themselves from some anonymous instigator:

This vicious rumor states that we do not serve our servicemen and women in uniform. Obviously this could not be further from the truth. We value all our customers including our veterans and those currently in service. When the servicemen and women of our armed forces choose to visit the Shady Maple Smorgasbord for a meal, we are delighted to have them join us for an exceptional dining experience.

Some of these email hoaxes will disclose half-truths or are based on an obscure fact which makes tracking down the truth much more difficult. An example of this would be the razor blade hoax that began in 2008, which singled out a Wal-Mart in Lewistown, PA. Here is a snippet of the email:

…a few weeks ago I purchased a pair of pants at the Lewistown Wal Mart, while trying them on at home I felt something hard in the pocket…when I reached in to get it, it was a razor blade and I cut my finger.

Really? Well, this might sound reasonable – people play pranks all the time…what’s to stop them from planting sharp objects in clothing pockets for a laugh? This email is reminiscent of the legend of the Burlington Coat Factory Snake and the Halloween Apple Razor Blade Scare. Yet, just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it actually happened. In the case of the Lewistown Wal-Mart razor blades, the store’s management said that they had experienced issues with opened packages of razor blades found in the store, but the particular incident described in the email had never been reported or substantiated.

The two tales above name actual places and establishments. More frequently, specific details are left out of viral emails all together. This is a tell-tale sign you’re looking at a hoax. Many emails will cite a doctor, a high ranking military official, or a federal/state investigator, but never mention their actual name. Or, if they do mention a name, it is many times fictitious. Or, even worse, they are real people but do not hold the positions they claim.  If the individual making or reinforcing the claim is in an authoritative position, they are more likely to be believed. This is commonly referred to as an appeal to authority and it is a logical fallacy.

Over the years there have been many myths involving plastic and cancer, such as freezing and/or microwaving food in plastic containers can lead to breast cancer. While we do not know everything, we know for the most part plastic is considered safe. If you believe some of the viral emails about cancer and plastic though, you’ll end up spending hundreds of dollars buying glass jars and renovating your kitchen:

Johns Hopkins has recently sent this out in their newsletters. This information is being circulated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dioxin Carcinogens cause cancer. Especially breast cancer. Don’t freeze plastic water bottles with water in them as this also releases dioxin from the plastic.

Johns Hopkins is a reputable medical center and research facility. When these emails citing their name began to surface, staff quickly addressed them. Oddly, they had a very different take on the matter:

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.

These emails are a dime a dozen. Good-hearted friends and relatives think they’re spreading important warnings or news. Lately, there has been a resurgence of the email claiming Pennsylvania cell phone numbers are about to be released to telemarketers. This claim has been officially debunked by the Pennsylvania Attorney General, yet I still see it circulating around the internet after all these years, just like the ancient email guaranteeing a free restaurant gift card from Bill Gates just by forwarding the email. A friend usually adds the note, “Hey, you never know!”

But you do know, or at least you should be able to tell what seems reasonable or not. How might you tell if the email you got this morning from your co-worker is a hoax or just honest information? There are several clues:

  • A lack of verifiable information: No real names, places, dates or links to actual news articles. If you heard about something really interesting or alarming, and you wanted to tell everyone you knew, doesn’t it make sense to include the most accurate information as possible or at least include the source from where you heard it?  A truthful email should do the same.
  • Badly composed emails containing odd fonts, capital letters, excessive punctuation (!!!!!) and misspellings are not very credible.
  • If the email itself contains verbiage like “this is NOT a hoax,” or “We checked this out at Snopes and it’s true!” or “Forward this to everyone you know,” you ought to double check.
  • Or, if it sounds like another dire warning similar to those you’ve heard before, red flags should fly.

Do your own research even if the email seems reasonable. Don’t just forward something on because you think it’s interesting or harmless. Search the email title or keywords on Snopes.com, Factcheck.org or Hoax-Slayer.com. These are excellent sites that specialize in fact-checking urban legends and are credible sources. Check out their research and see what you think based on what they present.

The internet is a powerhouse of information. There is no good reason to consider a forwarded email from your grandmother as the absolute truth, it isn’t really coming from her. Be skeptical especially if it’s promoting extraordinary or heartbreaking claims (like the widely circulated email begging people for help in locating 13 year old Philadelphian, Ashley Flores, who apparently never even existed in the first place). Use the internet to your advantage, and not only will you discover better information through thinking rationally and critically about frivolous claims, you will broaden your own understanding of the subject. So, don’t perpetuate the hoax or make others fear manufactured , pass on the truth with a real reference link. Don’t perpetuate the hoax.

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