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139. Just The Facts

By Andrew D. Wright

Have you heard about the secret nuclear accident that has shut down parts of Ontario? How about the strange smelling business card that can make you pass out so you can be robbed? No? These are two actively circulating urban legends.

An urban legend is the modern-day successor to the chain letter of old. Where the chain letter would threaten bad luck if you did not continue the chain by sending the message to all your friends, the urban legend gets passed around because of some kind of story hook.

Urban legends are examples of a "meme", a concept or idea that acts like a biological organism. First coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene" in 1976, a meme will have a payload of information, its central idea, and some way to spread this information.

The more shocking or intriguing the urban legend, the greater the chance that it will be passed on to others. Urban legends will mutate or customize themselves to stay relevant to new audiences.

So for example the nuclear accident emails that claim to be sent from behind some kind of government news blackout will say the accident was in Chalk River for Canadian recipients and from Three Mile Island or some other close-by reactor for other regions.

Sometimes the purpose is just to make you pass the story on. Other times the idea is to make you run some sort of malware by claiming either an enclosed malware attachment or a webpage link going to some malware site contains more information about the parent story.

Urban legends can take many forms, but they always conform to the central idea of a meme: they are all trying to make themselves more likely to be spread around.

Sometimes it may be an email plea to help find a missing child, sometimes it might be some too-good-to-be-true piece of made-up gossip about some politician or celebrity.

The urban legend has found particularly fertile ground in this age of political division with negative attacks on candidates able to use complete lies with anonymous impunity, the original senders able to hide their identities with anonymizing email servers or using open wireless connections.

Pretty much any idea that can be communicated from one person to another is a meme. Language, political beliefs, religious beliefs, notions of family, all of these are memes. The ABC song you learned your letters from as a kid is a meme that uses the powerful tools of music and rhyming to pass itself along and remain unaltered as the human generations come and go.

Memes in and of themselves are neither good or bad. Whether or not a meme is true is less important to the meme than how well it can propagate. Sometimes the meme will evolve, change or diversify over time and sometimes the meme will have some method of remaining unchanged, killing off competing memes. A person's mind, their idea space, can hold only so many memes at one time.

Memes are now commonly used as advertising (viral marketing) and information warfare (political soundbites). The Internet is a fertile ground for the spread of memes made for both good and bad purposes.

As with most things to do with computers and the Internet, the best approach to dealing with the now constant onslaught of email and web forum urban legend memes is knowledge. Forewarned is forearmed.

Here are some resources where you can do some fact checking on that odd email your Aunt Emily forwarded to you.


Urban legend memes fact-checked:


The Straight Dope (fighting ignorance since 1973):


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Originally published 26 September 2008


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