Cyber Security: Online Urban Legends

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Before we had the Internet, everybody had heard that entering your PIN backwards at an ATM would summon the police, or that eating Pop Rocks candy with soda would make your stomach explode. These urban legends were part of popular culture and repeated endlessly, very often with, “I heard it from a friend of a friend” added for emphasis. And they’re all bogus.

Like many things, urban legends made the transition to the Internet almost immediately. Now instead of telling friends on the playground, you can post these on forums and social media. In another twist, the Internet has spawned its own unique brand of urban legends.

Facebook is fertile ground for these myths. One of the oldest (from 2012) warns that Facebook will be deleting “all privacy settings shortly” so users will have no control over who sees their postings and photos. The real story is that Facebook removed older, less effective privacy settings in order to give users more control. That last part got lost in the uproar.

In 2015, someone said that if you upgraded your iPhone to iOS 9 without turning off a certain setting (on by default) you could rack up five-figure data overage charges. The first part (on by default) was true; the second (massive charges you didn’t expect) was completely untrue. The setting in question could only cause charges if you combined it by turning on a half-dozen other settings, all of which were OFF by default.

Common these days are urban myths that make otherwise uninteresting photos into something they’re not. Contrary to a 2020 Facebook meme, a recent online picture does NOT show Nancy Pelosi with Charles Manson. Rather the woman is Mary Brunner, Manson’s first recruit and mother of his child.

One of the most bizarre myths was a posting from July 2016 that said Mike Pence’s daughter must be a vampire because in a photo of her with a mirror behind her, her reflection is not visible. Like many urban legends, it started as a joke but the humor got sidelined the more times it got recopied.

These days, myths on the Internet spill over back to the non-digital world. A persistent digital hoax linking 5G wireless technology to COVID-19 rebounded back to the physical world when 5G cell towers in the United Kingdom were burned by activists who claimed the towers were spreading the coronavirus.

So, when you encounter something that might be a myth, what’s the best way to investigate? A great place to start is Snopes.com, where you can enter keywords like “facebook privacy” and see whether a posting is true, false, or somewhere in-between. Snopes has been around for over twenty years and has an impeccable reputation for debunking groundless assertions.

Other sites are an outgrowth of the editorial fact-checking process. This method, used in print publications for over a century, researches assertions, attempting to corroborate their validity. There is now a certification in fact-checking available to reporters and editors, offered by the International Fact-Checking Institute. Several websites use IFCN standards to investigate the truth in online claims posted in Twitter, Instagram, and online forums. Among these are politifact.org which has a “Truth-O-Meter” for each claim.

Before you click to share that new revelation that is too interesting to keep to yourself, take a second to investigate its veracity. Do your part to keep the hysteria down. 

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