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Is that Email for Real?

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I often write articles informing parents about things that could affect their children, but this week, it seems appropriate to tell both parents and kids to listen up.

“From what I've seen, there are two types of these emails.”

First the good news: Even in this era of terror, instability, and bad weather, we still trust each other to a high degree. How do I know this? No, I didn't conduct a survey, and I haven't researched the topic to a great degree. I know this by simply looking at my email "Inbox" and the multitude of "you won't believe this" messages that arrive there each week. Everyone who forwards these items must have a great deal of trust in humanity.

But the truth about these "eRumors" (using a term from a web site called http://www.truthorfiction.com) hit me squarely a few days ago when a very close acquaintance of mine, who I might add is older and much wiser than I, told me a story about Neil Armstrong.

He said that after Armstrong stepped on the moon and uttered his famous "one small step" phrase, that he mumbled something about "Good luck Mr. Gorsky." My friend said for years Armstrong was asked who this Mr. Gorsky was, and it wasn't until the mid-1990s that the acclaimed astronaut finally told the details.

"Mr. Gorsky is dead now," supposedly said Neil, who then tells a story of how he overheard the man -- who was his neighbor during childhood -- having an argument with his wife. The confrontation was centering around, shall we say, "favors" in the bedroom. Mrs. Gorsky then brought the discussion to a halt when she told Mr. Gorsky he would only be granted such bonuses when "the kid next door walks on the moon!"

What a great story! It's funny, ironic, and cute. But I'm an avid space nut, and couldn't recall Armstrong ever saying anything about Mr. Gorsky. The next day, my friend sent me the Internet clipping in an email to prove its validity. Within ten seconds on Google, I discovered the real truth.

Armstrong never did mention Gorsky. The entire story is 100% false, and is one of hundreds of Internet hoaxes that flood the bitways of the "disinformation" highway each day.

This particular case of fraudulent reporting will not have any life changing consequences (although I'm certain Armstrong is dog tired of having to set the record straight). But this situation was a wakeup call for me in that I realized it's not just nice "little old ladies" or innocent children who can be taken in by believing what we see in print as representing truth. You also shouldn't feel stupid if you are one of many adults who believe what they read, and may have been pulled into buying into a similar email. Even Rich Buhler, who founded truthorfiction.com, admits on the site it is becoming very difficult to discern which of these emails may contain a grain of truth.

However, in this day of rapid dissemination of information, we must find ways we can better evaluate if the facts we are being provided are indeed true. These eRumors can thus become a great learning opportunity to develop critical thinking skills in parents and their children. With a few pointers, you can help yourself and your kids detect when you are dealing with a "spoof" or outright lie in your mailbox.

(Note that I'm not covering the other type of fraudulent email where you are asked to provide financial or personal information. The emails in this article are "one way" items that are not intended to solicit a reply -- although many do request that you pass the email on to your friends.)

From what I've seen, there are two types of these emails. Some are benign, fluffy stories that are often uplifting or seek to share incidents of heroism. Others are messages that spread false and even nasty information about individuals, organizations or corporations.

Have you heard that Dunkin Donuts has Arabic employees who burn US flags? Hit delete. Evangelist Dr. James Dobson has endorsed homosexual marriage? Not likely. How about Daisy, the Guide Dog, who saved 967 people from dying in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? As much as we want to wish this were true, it's pure fiction.

Why people create these messages is beyond the scope of my bubble gum machine degree in psychology. However, why we want to believe them is more understandable. Take the last example -- a heroic dog story. That's a classic illustration of our need to find something good in what often appears to be a world of misery.

Many other eRumors are situations that are so crazy they grab our attention. Yet, they often include a thread of possibility within the message that allows us to think, "Gosh... I guess that really happened." We've also been conditioned to believe big corporations are out to get us, and the only way we can know what's really going on is through an underground information exchange. eRumors capitalize on these fears to a great extent.

With our increasing dependence on many different sources for news and information, it's becoming critical that parents and teachers help children (and themselves) be able to differentiate between truth and fiction. How can we do this? A page on the aforementioned website, www.truthorfiction.com/signs.htm, does a wonderful job of detailing ways you can become more adept at intercepting email falsehoods.

Put simply, if it's a big "wow" story, ask yourself why it wasn't on the TV news or in your local paper. And don't fall for bylines that say "Reprinted from the NY Times on July 7, 2000." Most of these emails have bogus references. Finally, just because the email came from someone you trust, don't think the writer of the eRumor can be trusted.

At the end of all this, if you're wondering what we can learn from this trend of virtual gossip and lies, again I send you to www.truthorfiction.com/lessons.htm. There, the creator of this website, which is dedicated to debunking Internet and urban myths, gives some sage advice on how we can think more critically about what we read.

And if you don't believe me, go find out for yourself!

Other websites offering information on Internet hoaxes include:

Hoaxbusters operated by the U.S. Department of Engergy's "Office of Cyber Security."

Here's another Hoaxbusters website that appears unrelated to the previous one.

Snopes.com is a popular site for both online and offline tales.

About.com has an Urban Legends section.

www.vmyths.com specializes in computer virus myths and hoaxes.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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