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Jim Walker: Sticking forks in urban turkeys

Don't Take Me Seriously

Posted: November 18, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: November 18, 2011 1:55 a.m.

I had my kidney stolen by a hooker in Las Vegas.

No, seriously. You can see it happen every now and then on TLC. It’s part of a series of programs debunking urban legends, and I was the “victim” in a re-enactment of that kidney-stealing deal — which never actually happened, by the way, in Vegas or anywhere else.

I think I made $100 for the shoot, during which I did some really bad acting, and nearly lost my love handles to frostbite after spending about a half-hour in a tub full of ice.

Good times.

So, as we head into the week of Thanksgiving, and I count my blessings, I find I am not only thankful for retaining my love handles (I mean, what would be the alternative, love indents?), but I am also grateful for the existence of the guardians of truth, such as TLC. And, even better, there’s, where you can very quickly get the real scoop on the latest turkeys in urban legends and hoaxes and virus scares and misrepresentations circulating in the social media.

I was reminded of that this week when that pesky urban legend about Walmart selling “Chanukah hams” resurfaced, as it apparently has every holiday season since 2007. Having somehow never heard this tale before, I was all set to do a column on the big chain’s bad taste, and wondering whether I’d ever need Walmart money for my presidential campaign, when I tickled the keyboard and Snopes slapped some sense into me.

It never happened.

Thank you, Snopes, for saving me from the deep gully of gullibility, where the bodies of so many other rubes pile up, as our accessibility to hoax-bombardment, via the Internet, increases daily.   

Now, there was a time, in the pre-Internet world, when urban legends were more refined. They traveled much more slowly, via word of mouth, and each teller of the tale could add his own little touches as he passed it on. And the myths stayed around for decades.

Short of the story making the nightly television news, there was really no way to rebut it. I mean, what were you going to do, go to the library? So you either believed or disbelieved, but you always passed the story on because, well, it was a good story.

This is how all those women came to have black widows in their hairdos.

But there were always clues to the authenticity of any hard-to-believe story. First of all, there were the degrees of separation.

As the tale got farther away from the teller, the likelihood of its truth was reduced.

Take, for instance, the old kidney-stealing story. A letter that promoted it had a line that read: “Yes, this does happen. My sister-in-law works with a lady that this happened to her son’s neighbor, who lives in Houston.”

That’s four degrees of separation and a (in this case) distant city — all preventing fact-checking.

Also, back in the day, you could consider the source of a story. If your best friend told it to you, it rode a little easier. But if you heard it from Pathological Pete, you were more skeptical.

These days, the attacks on your good sense come swiftly and in waves through email and Facebook, and they can chase you down anywhere via your smartphone. They can come with photos and video and even logos and such that mimic reputable news sources. And they are so very easy for you to pass onto multiple recipients, which you are inclined to do, especially warnings of dire situations — such as your cellphone number being made available to hordes of telemarketers unless you register it on the “Do Not Call” list in four days.

It all makes the truth a whole lot less likely to come at you.

On the other hand, these days, finding that truth is usually just a Google away. So, before you forward that thing about Gaddafi being seen at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval, do a little checking.

Oops, did I just start a rumor?

Either way, please forward this to everyone on your email list.

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