When George W. Bush campaigned
for the presidency did he really take time out at a banquet to share
his faith with a rebellious young man? Did thousands of people with
Jewish heritage stay home after being warned that terrorists were
going to attack the Trade Center on September 11? Is a group in
California actually trying to clone Jesus?
The answer to all of
these questions is no. These and hundreds of other stories, which
are known as urban legends, have been making the rounds on the Internet
and duping everyone from network journalists to college students.
Besides clogging e-mail servers, playing on fears, wasting time
and money, and spreading misinformation, such stories also tarnish
the senders credibility. This can be particularly damaging
48, is co-director of Answers in Action, an evangelical organization
in Costa Mesa, Calif. "A [significant] consequence [of spreading
misinformation] is that when Christians do proclaim the truth of
Jesus many wont believe it," Passantino told PE Report. "Theyll
think that story is as unreliable as the e-mail rumors and urban
legends Christians have unwittingly passed on.
"As Christians we have
an obligation to check out stories and not pass them on unless we
know them to be the truth," she says. "One thing that distinguishes
Christians from others is that we serve the God of truth, so we
need to be sure to tell the truth."
Two years ago a fabricated
story taken from an Internet site known for its satirical articles
reported that Harry Potter books had influenced millions of children
to embrace satanism and that author J.K. Rowling was pleased. Blasphemous
quotes attributed to Rowling and outlandish quotes from children
began making the rounds. But experts say the story would never have
reached the status it did if those who so eagerly sent it on would
have checked its veracity and origin.
Christians should be
wary of any e-mail that arrives in their computer inbox after it
has been forwarded several times. This, experts say, is a tip-off
that the e-mail could be a hoax or rumor. Other telling signs the
stories are fake is that they play on hopes or fears; promise riches
or forecast doom depending on what action the reader takes; are
not reported by credible news agencies; and implore the reader to
pass the information along to others.
"One of the biggest dangers
of hoax messages is that they multiply," says Bill Campbell, online
services manager and webmaster at the Assemblies of God national
headquarters in Springfield, Mo. "If one person sends a hoax message
to just 10 people in his or her address book and each of those recipients
does the same, the result is 1 million messages by the sixth generation."
Though the mode of transmission
has changed due to technology, urban legends are nothing new. In
the 1970s, some believed a rumor that claimed scientists had drilled
through the earths crust and discovered hell. In the 80s,
the president of Procter & Gamble was portrayed as a satanist
who allegedly appeared on Phil Donahues talk show to confirm
the companys symbol was satanic. Despite repeated announcements
by both Donahue and Procter & Gamble that the rumor had no veracity,
it continued for years.
One of the biggest rumors
to stand the test of time, though it has been altered in several
ways, involves Madalyn Murray OHair. OHair the
atheist who in 1963 convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to end state-sponsored
prayer in public schools supposedly petitioned the Federal
Communications Commission to ban all religious radio and television
According to truthorfiction.com,
no such petition has ever been presented to the FCC by OHair.
But the rumor continues even though OHair disappeared in 1995.
Even identification of her remains a year and half ago have not
put it to rest.
According to Passantino,
two motives compel people to spread rumors such as the OHair
story. "It makes the person passing the information feel like he
or she is in the know, and most people genuinely want to save others
from problems or disaster," she says. "But either motive doesnt
justify passing on information that is false."
Its not just Christians
who keep hoaxes, rumors and urban legends swirling.
Television network journalists
Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer have fallen for Internet hoaxes
and reported inaccurate information on the air, according to the
April edition of American Journalism Review. But usually
its the everyday, good-willed persons reputation that
is damaged most by the stories.
"I thought it was true,"
says one Christian man, who asked to remain anonymous, about the
e-mail rumor he passed along about Bush and the rebellious young
man. "The e-mail came from a close acquaintance. But when I learned
it was fabricated I felt bad that I was a victim of deception and
that I had passed it along to others."
To avoid propagating
stories that are not true, Passantino encourages Christians to put
any stories or news they receive via e-mail to the test. Double
check the facts of the story; visit Web sites such as answers.org
or truthorfiction.com to see if the story has already been debunked;
talk to the person who sent the e-mail; but most of all, practice
common sense. "When in doubt," Passantino says, "always throw it