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Discovery Discovery March/April 2001
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On the Web Knowing a Hoax from a Handsaw

by Jan Zauha

web hoax You've read them -- those alarming e-mails forwarded from well-meaning friends or colleagues, harbingers of the world's end or the death of your hard drive and every degree of catastrophe in between. Especially enjoyable are graphic tales of kidney theft, cockroaches hatched in women's mouths, and dead office workers going unnoticed for five days. Less entertaining are the scores of virus warnings that routinely clog your mailbox. Many of these seemingly serious messages turn out to be hoaxes; the warning itself is actually the virus.

The Internet is to hoaxes, rumors, and urban legends what an airplane is to cold germs: it seems to spread them faster, wider, and easier than any other vehicle. Luckily there are some excellent hoax buster sites that can help you sort through waves of misinformation and prevent you from living in fear or becoming a carrier yourself.

If you want a good grounding in basic urban legend, folklore, netlore or any other name you have for the fantastical misinformation that permeates the Internet, start with sites that help define and distinguish these terms. The Urban Legends Resarch Centre brought to you by an Australian folklorist, provides "Just the FAQs" to help elucidate some of the terminology. HoaxBusters from the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory capability (CIAC), provides definitions and examples of eight categories of hoaxes from urban myths to chain letters and other scams.

To sample the vast array of fabulous tales and scams that currently populate the 'Net and other human spaces, visit the archives of the alt.folklore.urban (AFU) newsgroup. There you can enjoy browsing vast categories of urban legends, including death, science, celebrities, animals, and religion. Another nicely organized vault of legends is the Urban Legends and Folklore category of's Internet catalog. This site not only dissects and debunks scores of myths, past and present, it links you to additional truthseeking sites on the Web. The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society maintains a similar site, Urban Legends and Reference Pages, with a searchable database feature. If you still can't get enough, check out Crank Dot net for "Web sites by and about cranks, crankism, crankishness, and crankosity. All cranks, all the time."

The most helpful sites of all, however, are those devoted specifically to identifying and debunking computer virus hoaxes. While some computer hoaxes are included on the general urban legend sites, more focused attacks can be found on Here in-depth coverage of virus warnings can help you distinguish the false from the true, understand beter how real viruses and hoax viruses are spread, and learn about new concepts like "viral marketing." Other computer-focused sites include Jeff Richards' Virus Hoaxes and Netlore, the University of Michigan's Virus Busters, and Hoax warnings from F-Secure, a data security vendor.

Should you wish to create and disseminate your own urban legends automatically, the Urban Legend Machine provides some satisfaction. If you would like help locating more information about misinformation, in print or online, call or steop in at the Renne Library reference desk. If you find Web sites that you think might be of interest to the MSU community, please send me an e-mail message at

Jan Zauha is the reference team leader at the MSU Libraries.



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