In the summer of 2014, a reader contacted me for a peculiar reason: They wanted to tell me about an old story. I had recently co-founded the fact-checking column Viralgranskaren (The Viral Reviewer) at the free daily newspaper Metro, and my special taste for urban legends made their appearances in the wild a recurring theme of our coverage.
The story went a little bit like this: One year, the property owners' association responsible for the upkeep of local roads in a housing cooperative outside of the town of Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden lowered its fees. It was now 100 kronor a year, or $11. The chairman of the association informed the residents, one of whom happened to be Peter Forsberg, a famous Swedish ice hockey player. A few days went by, and Forsberg’s money was in the agency’s account.
It wasn’t 100 kronor, however. The generous ice hockey icon had transferred 100,000 kronor – $11,000 – and thereby payed his share for the next 1,000 years. The chairman was stunned.
The reader, himself a resident of Örnsköldsvik, related this story to me because he recognized a similar narrative in the most recent issue of the business weekly Veckans Affärer. A front-page feature article on the finances of Swedish soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic led with that very same anecdote. Only this time, the generous athlete was Ibrahimovic, and the house was in the Stockholm archipelago.
The odds of the same thing happening twice were low, and the reader that contacted me had a very simple question: Could this story be an urban legend?
The most obvious way of finding out would have been to ask Ibrahimovic or Forsberg. But they are very famous and rich and don’t much care for queries from mere mortals like myself. The story was doubly challenging because it required proving a negative. Finding that something is true or exists is easier: You just have to point to it. Proving the opposite is harder, since you have to rule out every possibility that it might be true. And when can't ask the source, it takes lot more work. But there are 9 straightforward steps you can take to debunk an urban legend.
1. Recognize it.
Urban legends follow a specific format. They’re often short on details and have dramatic, sad, disgusting, weird or funny endings. I’ve read a lot of urban legends, and I suggest you do the same. Peruse some of the classics on Snopes.com or buy any of the three collections of urban legends by Jan Harold Brunvand. It gives you the tools to recognize the next urban legend that comes along, and it's an entertaining read.
2. Look for the ideological kicker.
People share made-up anecdotes to reinforce their personal beliefs. That makes the ideological preferences of the storyteller useful information. Was it a Trump supporter who shared the story about Donald Trump paying off a helpful passerby’s mortgage? That may make them less inclined to fact-check the story. The same is true for every one of us: We’re all suckers for stories that confirm our beliefs. Asking yourself if something is too good to be true is never as important as when you really want it to be true.
In this video, I walk through how a story you might recognize from an episode of M*A*S*H (or even before) ended up on social media in 2013, and what the changes to the story say about society’s views of female sexuality. Urban legends can tell us a lot about ourselves – it would be a shame not to listen.
3. Look for names, places, dates and images.
Most of the old-school urban legends were fuzzy on details such as when and where it happened and who it happened to, apart from when they featured celebrities. But on social media, even when the stories focus on ordinary people, urban legends often come with images, names and places. Google them! Search for the names and places mentioned and limit your search to the time span mentioned in the story. Use Google’s reverse image search or Tineye for the images. If you’re trying to reverse search a YouTube video, use Amnesty’s Data Viewer to find thumbnails you can reverse search. Identify and make use of every shred of evidence you can find, and if you don’t find any physical facts at all in the story – no names, no places, no dates and no images – you can be pretty sure it’s all bogus.
4. Read the comments.
Comments are often destructive, but they could be valuable when it comes to research. Often, some unbearable know-it-all (like myself) will have questioned the story before you and done some research. This tends to show up in the comments, so dig around. No reason to do the heavy lifting if someone else has already taken care of it.
5. Look for the source.
Urban legends rarely claim to originate from a firsthand witness or the actual object of the story. Instead, the source is someone along the lines of “my father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.” And if you actually make it all the way back to that roommate, they will probably be just as removed from the alleged origin of the story. This is a surefire sign of an urban legend. Finding the real source is not impossible, and they are often less than trustworthy.
6. Search the story’s central elements.
In the case of the road fee hoax, I searched for “Zlatan road association.” This surfaced a six-year old blog entry with the same story centered around another one of Ibrahimovic’s houses. This is suspicious, of course — he probably didn’t do the same thing twice. Searching for key elements of the story on Google and Facebook can help you find them in other versions. Several different versions of a story are an indicaor that you’re looking at an urban legend.
7. Ask the people involved in the story.
Contacting Ibrahimovic or Forsberg was not an option. But the magazine story about Ibrahimovic named the man who supposedly called him to ask for the fee. I asked him about it, and he flatly denied it. “I’ve heard this story before," he said "in a version where I wasn’t involved.” Additionally, the author of a well-known Ibrahimovic biography found story improbable, as the soccer star grew up poor and still doesn't take his money for granted.
8. Consult the folklorists.
If debunkers haven’t verified the story yet, reach out to them. But don’t forget about folkloristic scholars, experts on the stories we tell. They can tell you if they recognize it or if it’s a new urban legend altogether. If they’re good at their job, they’ll be keen to help you out — mostly because it means that they get to know what stories are out there right now.
9. Write about it – all of it.
Whatever you write, make sure to address everything I mentioned above. A debunk that flatly states something is false is not nearly as compelling as a story about how you found out, previous versions of the same story and what insights the hoax imparts on our society. Share it all! It will make the debunk more interesting to read and a lot more persuasive.
March 21, 2017
Jack Werner is a freelance journalist focused on the folklore of social media. His podcast Creepypodden, presenting ghost stories from social media and it's listeners, is Sweden's seventh most listened to podcast overall.
As social media editor at the Swedish edition of Metro, and co-founder of its fact-checking effort Viralgranskaren, together with two colleagues he was awarded The Swedish Grand Journalism Prize in 2014. He’s also received an honorary mention from The Swedish Association of Investigative Journalism, for his 2013 article Who is Veronika. He is the author of Creepypasta: Ghost stories from the Internet (2014), and is currently writing a book on the hoaxes, propaganda and myths of the internet.