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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fact or Fiction?

We all know the scenario: you're checking your email and you get one of those forwarded messages about some terrible virus you get from opening a certain email attachment or a kid dying in the ball pit at McDonald's. How do you know truth from an urban myth made up by someone to see how many people will believe it and pass it on?

I felt compelled to address the urban myth epidemic after receiving one of those very same emails mentioned above, regarding the case of a child dying after being stuck with a heroin needle in the ball pit at McDonald's. There was another story below it of a child dying from multiple snakebites in another ball pit somewhere else and the discovery of a snake nest found in the bottom. Other stories report vomit, feces, partially eaten candy and other horrible things found in ball pits are various locations.

The first thing I did upon reading it, which is what I always do when I receive any email that has been forwarded to hundreds of people with some kind of warning, is check its validity on Snopes which is a website existing only to confirm or dissolve rumors.

In this case, I replied to everyone in the same mail list that I was on, as well as the mail list that the sender was on, with a link to the site on Snopes that showed the news as false and added a message of my own. I basically explained that it's common sense that those ball pits are not the cleanest places to let your kids play in and while the stories were found to be false it doesn't mean the possibility isn't real. Places like Discovery Zone or other "kid gyms" are far more likely to maintain their play areas being that it's the purpose of their business. A fast food restaurant exists to serve food and while many kids will use their playground area, the cleaning crew's main tasks involve cleaning the food prep area and lobby. I would be surprised if there is actually a schedule in place to sanitize the play areas of any fast food restaurant. Even if you take away the food, vomit, feces, or other unsanitary items that may lurk in a ball pit, consider the large climbing structures and slides which are most likely covered in germs that scientists probably haven't even identified yet.

Unfortunately, this is only one small example of the kind of rumors that get circulated, pretty quickly. I remember playing a game in school one day in which the teacher told a student a "rumor" of sorts and had that student pass it on to another until it was passed all the way through the class and back to the teacher. The point was to see just how much the story would change as it was passed on. I would have thought that in just a small group of people, a story could hold up pretty well but the exercise proved that idea wrong. From the rumor that was started by the teacher, only the names of the people involved remained intact while the roles and the actions of the people were completely out of order.

I shared that example because the Internet can be seen as a giant classroom and every time a story is shared from site to site, the story may become more exxagerated or elaborate over time and such is true in urban myths. People love to tell stories, they want an audience and long for that reception from telling their story. Things go wrong when they start to embellish the truth for entertainment and those who hear it will share it and possibly put their own spin on it as well. The moral of this is simple: Don't believe everything you read or hear for the first time, especially if it sounds a bit unlikely; chances are, it's a rumor or only a fraction of a true story which has been completely altered as it was passed on. Always check Snopes or other sites of its kind to make sure a story is true before sharing it because even while the intention is good, you're only taking part in spreading another rumor around and giving its author the result they planned for.

1 comment:

Denise said...

Believe nothing, Question everything... Some of the wisest words my dad ever said to me. And I think they greatly apply to the internet seeing as how anyone can post just about anything.