A few years ago I received an email about a woman in Pretoria who was the victim of a heinous crime. She opened her car window to take a flier from a vendor and noticed afterwards that the man got into a car that started following her. She started to feel drowsy and noticed an odour in her car. Fearing her safety, she pulled into the first driveway and started honking her horn. The suspicious car drove on by and it later emerged that this unfortunate woman was given a flier laced with burundanga, a drug that is known to incapacitate people.
The anecdote above would send fear into must of us – if it were true. As it turns out, variations of the story above have been in circulation since at least 2008. While the drug is indeed known to render receivers zombie-like, it needs to be swallowed or deliberately inhaled. Merely handling a flier will not produce any effect.
I received this email from a friend and decided to follow up with the person who had sent it to her. Scarily, this person (in a diplomatic post), claimed to have received it from a source within the police. I have no way of knowing whether this person merely deflected blame after being informed that he was tricked into believing a hoax, but given that a similar urban legend was inadvertently distributed by police in the UK, it becomes clear that tall tales fool even credible sources.
You may think, “So what? You can’t be too careful,” and for the most part I would agree, but urban legends have potentially damaging effects. Designer Tommy Hilfiger was reportedly thrown off Oprah’s TV show after stating that certain ethnic groups should not wear his clothes. This incident never happened but it hasn’t stopped unscrupulous or unwitting people from damaging his reputation by circulating the email. The rumour started circulating in 1996 and up until 2007, Hilfiger was still having to put out fires when old emails resurfaced. No cost estimate is given, but between the FBI and private investigators a great deal of time and money was spent trying to identify the source.
As a parent, you may have enough concerns over your child’s safety without the added worry that drug dealers are making strawberry flavoured amphetamines for your children. Urban legends have a potential to incite religious, gender-based or racial hatred, cause panic, drain resources (for ISPs, your company’s server and possibly even police) and create unnecessary feelings of panic and fear.
It starts with critical analysis. For example, you’ve heard about the gang initiation, where an oncoming car has the headlights switched off and when you flash them, they attack you. For starters, that’s a fairly stupid ritual. What if five consecutive motorists flash you? You can’t chase all five in one go. Also, what if people ignore you for the first few hours? You may be in a gang and think you are tough as nails but with our pothole laden roads, I wouldn’t take a chance driving at night WITH headlights. And if you are a Joburger like me, you ignore and secretly hope that the idiot driving without headlights goes through the roadblock and has to deal with the Metro Police.
Here are a few handy tips to avoid falling for or worse, spreading urban legends:
• Don’t be swung by emotion. Hoaxers often use the suffering of small children or diseases such as cancer to get attention. If there is a genuine need for aid or awareness, a legitimate source would rather have you follow due diligence and investigate the claim made as it adds credibility to their cause.
• Analyse the source. If it is a copy and paste Facebook status or email be weary. If the source is not a credible news or information site, move onto step 2.
• Contact the sender. If you discover that something is a hoax, notify the person who sent the mail to you or the original sender. By educating others we can prevent the spread of inflammatory and untrue messages.