Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true

Written by Terri Reddout

Where were you on 9-11?

My friend called my office that morning.  She wanted to know if I started recording the news.  When I asked why she told me to get in front of a television set, now!  I did. That’s when I saw the replay of the second plane crashing into the second tower.

The next 36 hours were filled with my news students gathering stories and putting together a newscast focused on how the terrorist attack impacted the community and its people.

At the end of the day on 9-12, a student called me over to the computer and said, “Terri, you’ve got to look at this.”  Here’s what the email he opened looked like.

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I was dumbfounded.  A picture of the tower about to be hit juxtaposed to the innocence of an unsuspecting tourist.  I asked the student to forward the email to me.

That’s when I switched into journalist mode

The story was the camera that took this picture was found in the rubble and someone decided to have the film developed.  When they saw the picture they had to share it with the world.

Wait. Just. A. Minute.  I saw the towers crash to the ground.  How could a film camera survive that type of fall without the camera cracking open exposing the film to sunlight? Let’s say it was a digital camera (which were kinda rare and pricey at the time).  How could the camera still work after falling 90+ stories?

It took me 60 seconds with the help of Google to discover this picture was a hoax.  According to the Museum of Hoaxes at Hoaxes. org the email I received wasn’t the only one being circulated out there.

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Just as I suspected, there were some things that just weren’t right about the photo.  This screen shot shows the list of errors compiled by the good folks at Hoaxes.org

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 The Legend of “The Tourist Guy”

While people did learn the picture was a hoax, the question was who was “The Tourist Guy?” Who would do something so creepy and cruel?   No one knew.  But in the meantime the legend grew.  Suddenly, pictures of The Tourist Guy popped up at every natural disaster known to man.

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He made it onto a life raft when the Titanic sunk.





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He helped Neo and Trinity sorted their way through The Matrix.





He stood near the mooring mast at the Navel Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey when the Hindenburg exploded back in 1937.




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He even transported into the future and was there when an alien probe destroyed Federation Headquarters in Star Trek.



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My favorite had to be when the Stay Puff Marshmallow man from Ghost Busters attacked the city.



Weeks went by and we still didn’t know who The Tourist Guy was.  Then, a Hungarian news site identified the man as Peter Guzli.  He took the pictures on top of the Twin Towers while vacationing in 1997.  After 9-11 he pasted the plane into the shot and emailed it to friends.  It was his attempt at some dark humor to share in the wake of the attacks.  He told Wired Magazine, “This was a joke meant for my friends, not such a wide audience.”

So, a guy in Hungary creates a hoax picture and sends it to his friends.  Within 36 hours the same picture is sitting in my email box.  That’s how quickly news can spread via social media and the Internet.

“Entertaining story, Terri, but what is the lesson to be learned here?

This was the first time I encountered a story that people passed around assuming it was true.  It wasn’t the last time.  Here’s a short list of fake stories that made their way around the web.

  • Hillary Clinton and several key members of the Democratic Party ran child sex rings and abused innocent children out of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor.
  • Tests show that drinks from Starbucks are contaminated with feces.
  • There was the email that said Mr. Rogers was a sniper in the military with a record number of kills during Vietnam
  • Joe Thiesman, Sylvester Stallone and numerous other celebrities died in car accidents
  • Women were being kidnapped and raped by bad guys who crawled in the back seat of the car while the woman was busy filling the car with gas
  • Michelle Obama and the Queen of Qatar tied New York traffic up in knots so they could spend $50,000 on fancy undergarments at a up-scale lingerie store

I became aware of all these hoaxes because they were passed on to me by family and friends.  No, they weren’t being passed on as examples of hoaxes.  My own friends and family believed what they read and blindly passed it on to others as if it were truth.

Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true

In each of the above cases, it took me less that 60 seconds to determine the story was a hoax.

There’s no doubt social media and the Internet have democratized news coverage.  You don’t have to wait for the professionals to gather the news.  Just pull out your camera and post your video/pictures online.  We’ve had several examples of  “regular folk” sharing true, newsworthy and important information with others.

But, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it is true.  Before passing on information that can lead man to strap on an assault  rifle and storm a pizza parlor; or scare someone; or allow thieves to steal people’s identities; take a minute to check the information out.  Back in my early days of television reporting it would take minutes, hours and even days to verify information.  In this age of Google it only takes you a few seconds.

My soapbox speech is working

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 8.40.28 PMMy friends and family now know if they post something without verifying it, I will publicly post that the information they shared is wrong and here’s how I know.  (It gets to be embarrassing after I’ve done it several times to you!)

After delivering my little rant on verifying information found on the Internet,  a student in my COM 201 class made this post about Leonard Nimoy’s death on  our class FB page.

The first thing I did was to verify the information was true.  When I asked him about it in class, he said that’s exactly what he did before posting it to our class page.

Victory!  One post at a time.

The Assignment

Go to Canvas and look for the Blog#9: FakeNews discussion board.  Read the instructions and post your comments.

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