A few days ago I spoke at length with an acquaintance that was trying to tell me that the new iPhone 6’s had been contaminated with the Ebola virus.
This person told me that he had read an article that included all these incredible statements: the government was trying to hide it, it was reported by Fox News, that the phone was being shipped from Sierra Leone, and that 21,000 people had been infected.
I’d like to believe that most people with a modicum of skepticism would know right away that this is complete nonsense. Yet this person believed it whole-heartedly, without doing any further research on it himself. And now he was at a social gathering – spreading this idea to other people.
It may not be Ebola, but he was spreading this misinformation like a virus.
This post discusses the iPhone Ebola (or iBola) rumor in detail, the origins of this rumor. I also discuss in detail exactly why otherwise intelligent and successful people fall for this sort of nonsense every once in a while.
Here’s the entire story: This all started as a satirical article on a website called Daily Buzz Live that doesn’t bother to differentiate legitimate news articles from their satire pieces – at least not very well. Hence this was passed around and posted to Facebook as “fact”.
Review some of the obvious red-flags involved in this article, in order:
- The mistrust of authority element. What The Government Doesn’t Want You To Know – This is almost an essential ingredient in any hoax.
- No references. On a report Friday evening on Fox News – No link, sourcing or attribution.
- Lack of news coverage. Over 21,000 [infected] – Yet it’s not being reported anywhere in any major news source on TV or elsewhere?
- Plain silliness. These phones were assembled in a plastic manufacturing warehouse in Sierra Leone – Since when has Apple or any other major tech company been getting anything manufactured in Sierra Leone?
- Bad science. the iPhone’s have been contaminated with bodily fluids of infected individuals – Any high school biology student will tell you that unless it has a perfectly controlled environment, just about any virus will die within a few hours on a surface, including the Ebola virus. Unless the shipped iPhones were covered in blood – which evidently we are supposed to believe.
- Bad grammar. the iPhone’s have been – Grammar errors show that there is no editor involved.
As readers of my blog are apt to know: I am a private investigator and former Federal agent. I’ve seen it all in my career. Yet even I am still amazed by the BS that even very smart, successful people are willing to believe and tell their friends about. In all honesty, every once in a while, even I get taken in by a good hoax.
If you’re the type to wonder why we fall victim to these things from time to time, I highly recommend the book True Enough: Living to Learn in a Post-Fact Society, where author Farhad Manjoo presents this central thesis:
The limitless choice we now enjoy over the information we get about our world has loosened our grip on what is – and isn’t – true.
Containing equal parts sociology, psychology and history, the book discusses a number of ideas on why people choose to believe nonsense – despite ample evidence to the contrary being readily available.
To me, one part that sticks out the most is the idea of selective exposure:
Selective exposure arises out of the more famous theory of cognitive dissonance… the mental acrobatics people engage in when they are confronted with two or more “dissonant” thoughts.
In layman’s terms, selective exposure means that in general:
- Ideas that support our views and are easy to prove.
- Ideas that contradict our views, but are very easy to refute.
- Ideas that support our views, but are not based on fact.
- Ideas that contradict our views, and are difficult to refute.
Under this model, I think you can see how we all become victims of nonsense, scams and frauds from time to time.
A variant of the rule that we’ve heard since childhood applies to this situation: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
With the Ebola rumor, how easy would it have been for anyone to actually go to FoxNews.com, and search for this story?
Do a little homework, even when it’s something as innocuous as an Internet rumor or party conversation. A basic Google search is in your pocket at all times now.
For bigger problems, or if you believe you’ve been the victim or a larger fraud, scheme, or embezzlement – give our agency a call.