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

Written by Terri Reddout

Where were you on 9-11?

Chances are you were toddlers or younger.  Heck!  Some of you might not have been born yet.

I was in my Weber State University office working. My friend called and 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 university, 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 an unsuspecting tourist in juxtaposition with the jet about to hit one of the Twin Towers.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.   I asked the student to forward the email to me.

That’s when I switched into journalist mode

The story said someone found a camera in the rubble of the Twin Towers and decided to have the film developed.  When they saw this 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 100+ 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.  Hoaxes.org put together a list of all the errors. 

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 The Legend of “The Tourist Guy”

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

He apparently 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.

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Here’s visual “proof” that he stood near the mooring mast at the Navel Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey when the Hindenburg exploded back in 1937.


The Tourist Guy 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, The Tourist Guy was there.

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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.  On the day of 9-11, Guzli Photoshopped the plane into the picture 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 busily filled her 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 via social media as if it was true.

Ummm, family, friends and all the rest of you, here’s something you should know. 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.

  • Pizzagate was all made up.  Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party do not run a child sex ring.  But a man saw the story on the internet and decided to investigate the sex ring himself.  Edgar Welch carried a semi-automatic rifle into the Washington D.C. pizza shop and shot up a door demanding to know where the children were locked up.  As you can imagine, pizza workers and customers scattered in fear.  Welch did not break up a sex trafficking ring (there wasn’t one).  He just scared people.  Now he’s serving a 4 year sentence in prison.
  • Starbucks is NOT contaminated by feces. Yes, the ice was tested and found to have a common bacteria, but that bacteria is not related to poop.  In fact, if you had a tester, you’d find the same bacteria to the left, to the right, in front of you and behind you.
  • Mr. Rogers never served in the Army, nor was he a Green Beret or Navy Seal. So, no, he wasn’t a sniper.  The truth is, he was Canadian and too old to have served during Vietnam or the Gulf War.
  • Joe and Sly are both still alive.  In some cases these celebrity death hoaxes are actually vehicles that allow hackers to steal your identity
  • The Killer in the backseat story has been circulating since the 1960s. So it was a very old story, but my niece passed the story along as if it happened yesterday.   No, slipping into the backseat of a woman’s car while she pumps gas is not a gang initiation.  It’s an urban legend.  It’s just not true.
  • Michelle Obama was not in New York.  She was not chillin’ with the queen of Qatar. She didn’t spend even $50 on fancy underwear at that boutique.  It turns out a tabloid made up the story and it was picked up by several legitimate news sources.  A week later the tabloid printed a retraction.

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, remember, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it is true. 

Before passing on information that causes a 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!)

When I began little rants on verifying information found on the Internet several years ago,  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 Fake News assignment.  Read and follow the instructions.