10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

Don't Succumb to Pierre Salinger Syndrome
Journalist Pierre Salinger, originator of the Pierre Salinger Syndrome. Chris Felver/Getty Images

While the Internet can be an incredibly useful research tool, it also increases the danger of being had by some hoaxer who takes advantage of Web users' gullibility. In recent years, we've seen numerous instances in which the unwary were duped by dubious info which they assumed was true, because it was posted online -- a phenomenon known as "Pierre Salinger Syndrome," after the late journalist who in 1996 announced that a source had given him a government document proving that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down TWA Flight 800 while conducting missile tests off Long Island [source: Ganley]. As it turned out, the document was a fabrication that had been floating around the Internet for weeks, and which already had been discredited [source: Reid].

In 2009, so-called "Birthers," who believe that President Barack Obama actually was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii, uploaded what appeared to be a certified birth certificate dated August 4, 1961, indicating the President was born outside U.S. borders [source: WorldNetDaily]. Skeptics in the news media soon pointed out obvious flaws in the document -- it included, for example, the words "Republic of Kenya," even though Kenya was still a British dominion at the time. An anonymous blogger even posted a list of materials that he claimed to have used in creating the forgery [source: Weiner].

There are some simple steps that you can take to avoid being duped. A quick Google search can determine where a document or purported news article has been published previously, and whether its authenticity has been challenged. You can also research the details of the document, and see whether there are any flaws of the "Republic of Kenya" sort. Finally, you can consult a debunking Web site such as Snopes.com, which catalogs popular internet hoaxes [source: Snopes].

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