| Education

Sorting truth from fiction: Get to know hoaxes and urban legends

| 18 Nov 2023

Misinformation has always been present in our society, but with the Internet and social media, it has become even more difficult to distinguish fiction from fact – especially for kids. What different types of misinformation might you and your children come across online?

Rumors, urban legends and hoaxes - what are they?

Rumors, hoaxes and urban legends are all types of misinformation, but they differ in their sources and characteristics, as well as in the intentions of those who spread them.

In the recent past, rumors and urban legends were usually spread by word of mouth, but these days it is not unusual for them to appear online. They may not necessarily be created with malicious intention, but they always lack credible sources, so their validity is difficult – if not impossible – to verify. Hoaxes, on the other hand, are false narratives typically created to fool either specific individuals or just random people. After being put on the Internet, hoaxes tend to spread organically by people who believe in their truthfulness.

6 famous misinformation cases: From blue whales to poisonous Halloween candy

Misinformation can take many shapes. Sometimes, people just want to believe there is something magical in this world, so they spread urban legends about mermaids or giants. But other hoaxes or urban legends may have serious impact on people. Let’s look at some famous misinformation cases specifically targeting parents and kids, some of which you may have already encountered.

1) The Blue Whale Challenge

The Blue Whale Challenge originated in Russia in 2016. It was supposedly an online game aimed at teenagers consisting of a series of 50 tasks. To complete the final task, players were encouraged to commit suicide. News about the game spread through various channels, including social media, messaging apps and online forums. It eventually sparked panic among parents and authorities worldwide. It was, of course, deeply disturbing that a sinister online game could be targeting vulnerable teens and encouraging them to harm themselves.

However, there is no evidence that the game ever existed. Apparently, parents and media figures connected several pieces of information into one giant case of misinformation. For example, on some online forums the blue whale has become a symbol of suicide, but that might be simply because of the solitude and serenity associated with the sea giants. Eventually, reports of suicides linked to the game were debunked, and it was revealed that Philipp Budeikin, who confessed to having created the game, probably did so only to promote his band and build publicity. While the Blue Whale challenge turned out to be a hoax, other deceptive online challenges may cause harm, such as the Paracetamol challenge, the cinnamon challenge and the Tide pod challenge.

2) The Momo Challenge

The Momo Challenge gained widespread attention in 2018. According to the media, it involved use of a creepy image of a woman with bulging eyes and a bird-like body to scare and intimidate children into harming themselves or others. It was also believed that the scary face of Momo would appear in YouTube content aimed at children. However, despite the widespread attention and panic surrounding the Momo Challenge, it was ultimately revealed to be a hoax. 

Momo is actually a sculpture created by a Japanese artist, which was never intended to be part of this infamous case of misinformation. It was never confirmed that the face of Momo appeared in any videos meant for children and while there is a chance that a few kids received a message with the scary lady’s picture, this could have happened as a result of the media panic surrounding the affair. 

3) The Killer Clown Hoax

The fear of violent clowns spread rapidly throughout United States in 2016. Social sites and public media spread information about the supposed danger of people dressing up in creepy clown costumes in public places, often holding weapons and acting menacingly. The scary sightings quickly led to widespread panic among the public. 

However, while people dressed as clowns did get extensive media attention, in most cases, no actual violence was committed, and the individuals involved were often teenagers or young adults seeking attention or trying to go viral on social media. Still, there were some arrests made in connection to the hoax, and many people were left feeling anxious and frightened. 

4) Dangerous Halloween candy

The fear that candy was being laced with drugs, poison or razor blades and handed to children on Halloween has been around for decades. However, while there have been a few isolated incidents linked to Halloween candy over many years, the vast majority of reports turned out to be hoaxes. 

There is little to no evidence supporting the fear, but many parents continue to be wary of the treats their children receive while trick-or-treating. Some cities even offer to X-ray children's candy to ensure that it is safe to eat. Still, it is important to remember that the fear of poisoned candy is largely a recurring hoax. In fact, urban legends and hoaxes concerning children and potentially harmful food are rather common. For example, one urban legend claims that tips of bananas may contain snake poison, and in 2008 a man caused panic when he falsely confessed to poisoning baby formula.

5) Razorblades in waterparks

Another common urban legend claims that razor blades have been found in or around water park attractions, such as slides and wave pools. However, there is little evidence to support these claims and they are likely the result of unfounded panic. 

Parents need to remember that most water parks have strict protocols in place to ensure that their attractions are risk-free. If you manage to follow the rules and guidelines provided by water parks, you need not worry about such danger.

6) Severely ill children need your help

Throughout the years, there have been numerous hoaxes concerning ill children in need of financial assistance. One notable case is the Amy Bruce hoax, which involved a (non-existent) terminally ill child who was to receive a small sum of money each time her story gets shared on the Internet, or whenever a poem written by her would be forwarded to a new user.  Likewise, there were also many social media posts about a burned child named Alexandra, but it was later revealed that the photos in her story came from online sources and Alexandra herself never really existed. 

Often enough, these hoaxes concerning ill children don’t even demand money, just attention. But still, they prey on the emotions and sympathies of sensitive individuals, and over time they cause people to lose trust in everyone, even those who truly need their help. 

There are many such rumors, hoaxes and urban legends on the Internet that could be listed here. However, it is more important to approach what you see online critically than it is to know the details of each case of misinformation. Learn to distinguish between fiction and truth – and teach your children to do the same. 

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