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I need to let off steam! Perhaps I should say more steam, after my storm in a tea-cup  post (Not my Cup of Tea).

When I was a little boy – true in terms of age and size, I had an old 78 rpm record that  mum would put on the record player.  It was an old turntable with brass needles that were kept in a cup at the top of the machine, and which needed changing quite frequently.  Dad bought the needles in boxes.  I could put my ear next to the 12 inch circular speaker cover and listen to my record of Henny Penny (I think it may be called Chicken Little now…)

This was a children’s story about a chicken called Henny Penny.  The storyteller told the beginning of the story this way (cue music):

‘one day, Henny Penny was walking through the woods, when an acorn fell on her head. “Oh, dear” said Henny Penny, “the sky is falling, I must go and tell the king”.  And off went Henny Penny to tell the king (cue travelling music). Before long Henny Penny ran into Turkey Lurkey (in a tremulous voice the narrator says) “Where are you going Henny Penny”.  (breathless voice) “Oh dear, the sky is falling and I must go and tell the king”.  “Then I’ll come with you” replied Turkey Lurkey”‘

To cut a long child’s story short, Henny Penny met up with a number of her farmyard friends and they all decided to go with Henny to tell the king about the falling sky. Then they met up with (cue serious music) Foxy Loxy!

‘(In a slow, deep and sly sounding voice Foxy Loxy says) “Where are you going Henny Penny?”  “Oh.  Dear.  The sky is falling.  I must go and tell the king.” and she started off. “Wait”, said Foxy Loxy, “you’re going the wrong way”. (cue ominous music) “Follow me, follow me”.  And so Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky and all the others followed Foxy Loxy” (the music continues and Foxy Loxy sings “follow me” over and over and adds ones about the animals as culinary delights – Goosey Loosey, nice and juicy etc.) Foxy Loxy leads them all straight to his den and Henny Penny and all the rest are never heard from again”.

Today, Henny Penny lives on in the internet.

My rant this time is about my friends – generally a very intelligent, great bunch of people.  But it seems many of us are gullible as soon as we start travelling the digital highways.  Hence my clumsy messing with Gulliver’s Travels.

This week (and it’s only Tuesday) I have had several examples of handed down gullibility.  I hope I’m not insulting some of my friends – it just seems to be a phenomenon that happens on the web to even the most intelligent.

This is what happens.  Someone sends someone else an email or they get a post on Facebook that tells something that sounds very important – often with the advice to pass this along to anyone they care about.

The receiver reads the article – watches the clip etc. and then shocked or amazed sends it along to all their friends or shares it on social media.  Unfortunately they seem rarely to check out the veracity of the information before hitting send/post/share!

Just stop it!

There are two main types of these acorn falling phenomena (AFP): 1 hoaxes about something incredible that would be exciting if it was only true.   2. Assertions and proof of something frightening with warnings to avoid whatever it is (or go and tell the king if you are well enough connected and happen to have a male monarch handy – not the butterfly type Yvonne). The second set is the more problematic.  I see the first as the media equivalent of practical jokes. Annoying practical jokes when passed along, not as jokes but as serious information.   The second type can be very upsetting for people, add to the prevalence of societal fear, and potentially cause real harm – physical and economic.

Here are a couple of examples of the first kind.

A planet will be coming closer to the Earth than it ever has before.  It will be so close that it will appear in the sky larger than the Moon.  We will be able to see it at such and such date and time.  Pass this along, so all your friends can see this once-in-a-lifetime event.  Well EXCUSE ME, but what a load of ………..bunk!  I can’t tell you how many emails I received advising me of this cosmic delight. One quick check with Snopes.com (an online service that looks into urban myths and hoaxes), shows this to be false.  It gives a history of the hoax – when it first surfaced and many of the variations on this theme. The whole idea is ludicrous anyway.  Thanks for passing it on Henny Penny and friends.

I have shared the Snopes article with my enthusiastic but, dare I say, gullible friends.   Then a few weeks later I receive another obvious hoax from many of the same friends!

Another one that makes the rounds every year or so is the appearance of giant icebergs in Lake Winnipeg.  This article comes complete with beautiful photographs of the bergs with kayakers for scale.  These are obviously real photographs, of real icebergs, but to think these monster 300 foot high bergs could be produced in our large (in area) but shallow lake Winnipeg are preposterous.  A quick check with Snopes once more and I discover this hoax has been going around for years.  Yes, they are real icebergs – I forget where, but in an ocean where you would expect to find something as wonderful as this.  Apparently the variations for this hoax are the locations chosen for the latest sighting. All are noted to have been found on lakes that could never support the development of an iceberg let alone ones of the scale of these monsters.

Once again I passed along the Snopes article to my friends with a suggestion that they may wish, in future, to check out these kinds of articles on Snopes before passing them along to others.  It could save them embarrassment I thought. Some do come back with a pink glow to their on-line cheeks.

Annoying as it is to receive silly information that clogs up my email and wastes my time on Facebook, they are not the worst.

The worst are the ones that are aimed at scaring people about something common.  One going the rounds at the moment is warning about Gardasil (Snopes says: Gardasil is a vaccine intended for girls and young women between the ages 9 to 26 to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus which is currently linked to an estimated 70% of known cervical cancer cases. Read more at http://www.snopes.com/medical/drugs/gardasil.asp#arG5O9RBuJiLlqzd.99)

This could be an important vaccine, or one that someone has taken or had had administered to their daughter.  However, the spurious article claims medical evidence of terrible side-effects and deaths caused by this vaccine.  If this is passed along without any checking, just think of the worry it can cause.

Another false report (timely one this) is about Mandarin oranges from China. (Pesticide used on mandarin oranges imported from China is causing severe allergic reactions among U.S. consumers because of a pesticide used in growing them.  This again is a false report, but could make us decide to avoid these delicious treats.  Whether or not we should support a globalized food industry because of ecological impacts is a whole different issue.  You can read more about this particular false report by clicking on this link http://www.snopes.com/food/tainted/mandarin.asp#mmBISGsQIk3L9I2F.99

There are many problems with the thoughtless passing on of these types of items.  Obviously they can lead to scares and cause people to making decisions based on falsehoods.  Secondly they can cause us to disbelieve anything we read.  There is already so much doubt in our world, do we really need to be inundated with deliberately misleading information passed along by smart but gullible people.

The solution is simple.  If you want to avoid being tied up in the Lilliputian ropes of ignorance and their knots of anxiety – when you get an article that sounds too horrible or too fantastic to be true – or too alarming – it probably is; check it out on Snopes.com or other similar websites and get the facts before passing it on and worrying or annoying your friends and contacts.

OOOh, I feel so much better now!

And now for something completely different and lighthearted I have added this Open University clip on the History of English – very funny. Thanks to Janet who only passes on enjoyable and usually humorous content.  

By the way, in case you are worried or have seen something on the web, It’s ok to use your microwave oven! I checked on Snopes.