When do you call people on urban legend spreading.

I’ve had occasion to do it in the past, but usually only when it comes in the form of a group email spreading misinformation or dumb chain letters. I just direct the person to snopes with a fairly gentle “I think this might be an urban legend.”

The other day, though, someone told this story (warning, dead kid):

The weird part was that he was saying that the person who told it to him, told it on himself. That is, the original teller claimed to have been the driver in question and to have gone to prison for 10 years as a consequence. There were some small discrepencies (2-year-old, rather than 8-year-old), but it was otherwise identical.

I didn’t say anything at the time, even though the story struck me as unbelievable. For example, either the guy is driving around like that in broad daylight without getting stopped or there is a kid running around in the middle of the night. Also, take a look at the typical car. Later on, little urban legend bells began to ring and I looked it up.

The person who told us the story had been deeply affected by it. Needless to say everyone else was horrified, too. Calling him on it would mean showing him up in front of a number of other people.

So would you publicly challenge someone on something like this or not?

Personally, when I think the person is smart enough to know better. Dumb people I don’t bother with, because they either won’t listen, or will take offense, or will think I’m the idiot for not believing it.

Now if the person claims the UL actually happened to them? I guess I’d let it slide, unless there are obvious discrepancies in the story.

I call them on it, when they try to make a fool of me in front of people.

This is always a difficult call. Most people’s reaction to being called on this is violent and angry, as if you had accused them of lying. I have talked about this with several other folklorists, and we’re not really sure why people are so personally invested in the information they pass on. Part of my bread and butter is collecting and analyzing this material, so I tend to let it go, but I will step in if I feel someone is being harmed or may be harmed [i.e. money is supposed to change hands, ordinary cultural practices are falsely being labeled as unsafe, etc.]. The best way I’ve found is to send a sympathetic personal email to the sender, and a separate, minimalist email (a link to Snopes or whatnot) to the whole group.

By the way, the phenomenon you describe isn’t unheard of. Sometimes what really did happen is close enough to a circulating legend that people actually manage to modify their memories, and sometimes people deliberately insert themselves into a story in order to seek attention or whatever. It’s called proto-ostension.

I’ve noticed a lot of these things have been spread in my general direction lately. Seeing as how the willful spread of false statements without even a cursory internet check (or common sense) is one of my greatest pet peeves, I usually tend to call people on it every time I hear it (Also complete with Scopes link). Interestingly enough, the usual result from my corrections is one of annoyance that they were proven wrong, instead of a thanks for letting them know something they were deceived about…people are funny.

Unfortunately, email isn’t an option in this case. If I wanted to make a thing of it, it would have to be in person. I’m probably going to let it go, unless I see a good oportunity to do it in a sympathetic way. I don’t know the man in question well, and he certainly was invested in the information and clearly had no notion that he might have been lied to.

I always call people on ULs. How I do it depends on the circumstances.

If the UL is being told as a way for the teller to brag on hirself or slander others (“I was there when Ozzy bit the head off a bat!” “Mr. Rogers was a sniper!”) I will flatly state “Urban legend,” and either cite Snopes from memory, or pull it up on the net.

If the UL is being told as a horror story, I will act as the voice of reason (“They’re not going to leave someone alive after stealing their kidney”) and continue to address myself to other listeners, if the teller won’t have any of it.

If the UL is being told as a funny story, I will pretend I never heard it before, but muse about the flaws in logic. (“Yeah, but wouldn’t the FBI have already made arrangements for second meal?”) It’s practically impossible not to do this, after you’ve been reading Snopes for a while.

And cher3, that particular legend usually kills me, because the age is specified right when the kid is first seen, as if she’d had her birthcert clutched in her little hand. In this case, though, you might want to ask if it can be proven that the original teller really was in jail for ten years, for whatever reason. In which case, I have to wonder what he really did, that he’d use a UL for a cover story. :dubious:

Yeah, the jail part is what made me perplexed when I read the OP. I can see why someone would insert themselves into an UL story if it makes them seem cool or funny, but claiming jail time for killing a child while DUI strikes me as way more creepy than anything else. cher, can you say more about the context in which the story was told? If it was supposed to be an inspirational story, like “the time I quit drinking, and then found Jesus” I would probably stay far away from that. I guess it’s possible that making his recovery even more dramatic works for him, and whatever, you know? (This would be different if it was the scenario Dr. Drake described, and he was using the story to convince people to fork over money for something, for example buying his book).

On the other hand, if it was some guy trying to talk big about his prison experience … well, I would stay away from that now that I think about it, because I don’t want to get any more involved with someone who brags on his jail exploits. I might mention that I had heard stories about other people doing the same thing, and add “My goodness, who would have thought this would happen so frequently?” I have actually done this with other (more fun) ULs, along the lines of “That’s AMAZING, I know someone else who was at the party with the woman and the dog and the peanut butter – do you know my friend Dave? Tall, blond guy?”

Like Dr. Drake, I make a point to do it if I think useful information is being passed on as false, or outright lies about someone’s culture, stuff like that. However it rarely works. I called somebody on the “Chinese restaurants use cats and thus were closed down” thing and they gave me the blankest stare and said “Oh, but it really did happen.” :rolleyes: (My SO’s family ran a top-notch Chinese restaurant for many years and it always offends me.)

Better just to keep your mouth shut most of the time. Actually that particular statement applies to 90% of life.

delphica, I got the impression it was most like your first scenario–the inspirational one. I wasn’t there to get the full context, so I don’t know what the original teller’s whole motivation might have been. It was just a very weird moment in the conversation. I didn’t come up with the UL connection until later and I don’t think bringing it up next time I see him would be very nice. Maybe if someone who knows him better mentions it first…

If people send a UL to the college list, I reply to the list saying, “This is a hoax” and “Snopes is your friend.” I don’t say anything to the sender, or even say anything about sending it out. They get the message: it embarrasses them even though I don’t say anything negative about them. Just the facts.

If it’s send individually to me, I also point them to Snopes (individually). If they put me on a mailing list, I set them straight, then say, “Never send this sort of thing to me again.”

Like Rilchiam, I make it a point to refute urban legends. It’s easiest via e-mail – I just look up the UL on Snopes.com, include the URL then hit “Reply All”. It’s what I can do to fight ignorance.

It looks like I’ve just lost out on a 40-year-old friendship because of this very thing. My oldest and dearest friend included my home e-mail address in a mass-mailing of some glurge, and now I’m getting spam at home for the first time ever. I wrote him, telling him never to send me anything like that again, and told him I was aggravated that he had exposed my home address to spambots. From the tenor of his reply, he’s the injured party, and I don’t think he’s ever going to write me, or speak to me again.

Ozzy did bite the head off a live bat. See: http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/marilyn2.htm and scroll down a bit.

I always reply to the urban legend emails with a link to the appropriate Snopes url. In person, I tend to just say something along the lines of, “Have you ever been to Snopes dot com? No? Maybe you should go – they actually do the research on these urban legends so you don’t have to do it for yourself.” I am such a condescending bitch, anyway, that most people don’t bother telling me this stuff, but sometimes…

Huh. Well, I still don’t believe that guy was there.

I do the same, except I enjoy it more in real life than over email.
(If one of my friend was dumb enough to forward an UL they’d get ten emails back ripping them to shreads for it)

I’m with you. My first thought was that the teller of this tall tale must be one disturbed individual to get something out of people believing he was the protagonist. Sympathy, perhaps?

It’s quite possible that he was/is a very disturbed person. Also, the person who told us would probably not have any way of knowing if the story teller had ever been to jail at all.