A new tale of horror is going viral on Facebook this week, just like every other week. You may have seen this stomach-turning photo of a rat in a 20-ounce soda bottle alongside a claim that a family made this discovery after their child had already finished off half of the bottle. (Why a toddler was pounding so much Dr. Pepper in the first place is a question for another day).
Of course, news stations immediately ran with it, since it has all the ingredients for a perfect story. It’s gross, involves a child, makes a big corporation look bad and could happen to anyone. It’s also blatantly fake, following in the footsteps last year’s deep-fried KFC rat hoax and the original classic finger in the Wendy’s chili debacle. The motivation for people to craft these deceptions is fairly obvious. Everyone wants a piece of viral internet fame. It’s a weird quirk of human nature to desire some kind of notability, no matter what it’s for. Money is also a factor in these kinds of scams. It’s easy to get a billion dollar company to throw a few bucks at you to retract your claims.
But what is less clear is what makes people fall for these hoaxes. The internet is filled with crazy made-up yarns, whether it’s the popular gross-out like finding a rat in your food, or something with political connotations designed to incite anger or fear. People are shockingly quick to believe any silly rumor they hear, and then share it widely among their social networks. One would imagine that most reasonable people would see a blatantly ridiculous claim like President Obama flashing “Muslim gang signs” at an event, laugh at how weird that sounds and then move on with their day. But for some reason, in thousands of minds, logic is overridden by outrage and these stories perpetuate.
Confirmation bias is probably the effect that’s at work with this type of scenario. That means you tend to look for facts that support your own pre-existing ideas about the world, no matter how flimsy, and ignore any other evidence that says your beliefs may be incorrect. In the above example, people who are already inclined to dislike the President and suspect him of having secret ties with Islamic groups see an image of him jokingly wagging a finger at someone with a caption that links his hand gesture to something sinister, and they have no trouble making the leap to believe the caption. In their minds, their long-held suspicions are true and there is photographic evidence to back it up.
The confirmation bias at play in the endless reposts of finding body parts and rats in food products is the American people’s inherent distrust of large corporations. Ever hear see a viral news story featuring outraged citizens finding bugs in a small family-owned pizza restaurant? Probably not. But spot a hair on a Papa John’s slice and the whole internet is going to have an opinion about it. We love to hate “the man” and will take any chance we get to back up our hatred with what seems like solid evidence.
Most of the time, these silly viral posts are harmless and merely annoying. The truth behind such silly stories is always revealed eventually and anyone who fell for it and shared it looks dumb. Next time you’re confronted with a story that seems too crazy to be true, it probably is. Take a few minutes to do a bit of research or just use your own common sense before reposting and getting upset. Your Facebook friends will thank you.