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Hoaxes & Hypes

Sarah Gordon, Joe Wells
7th Virus Bulletin International Conference in San Francisco, California
October 1997

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Virus hoaxes and virus hypes are new and growing problems in the corporate environment, where the spread of such rumors can cause as much disruption as actual virus outbreaks. We review a number of recent examples of hoax and hype, and show that hoaxes that become widespread have certain characteristics that promote their spread. Using these characteristics, it is possible to create a set of rules which will help to distinguish fabrication from fact. Similarly, virus hype, often generated by the anti-virus industry or well-meaning members of the media, portrays real but insignificant viruses as doomsday threats. We show how such hype is almost always wrong. Finally, we discuss corporate policies that have been proven to minimize the disruption of hoaxes and hype, and give corporate anti-virus administrators a wealth of information resources to which they can turn as new hoaxes and hype come to light.


As the Internet and worldwide e-mail has advanced, the ability for individuals to rapidly exchange ideas has grown accordingly. While there are a raft of benefits to this enhanced communication, new problems have been born out of this brave new world, and existing problems exacerbated. In this paper we will examine the dangers of virus-related hypes and hoaxes within the corporate environment. As concepts of hype and hoax are in no way merely virus-related [1], we will first turn our attention to the more general problem, before applying knowledge learned from more familiar hypes and hoaxes to computer-specific rumors. We will examine the type surrounding the "Tickle Me Elmo" doll [2] and the virtual pet Tamagocchi [3]; then, we will discuss the "Carlos" hoax [4] reportedly perpetrated by magician James Randi, and crop circle hoaxes. Next, we will examine the Michelangelo virus hype and the Good Times virus hoax. After examining these examples of hypes and hoaxes, we will discuss one popular model that attempts to account for the relative successes of different hypes and hoaxes: the "meme". The concept of the meme, a term first coined by Richard Dawkins, has gained widespread attention on the Internet and in literary and academic circles. Our brief exploration of meme theory will provide a framework that will allow us to distill appropriate models and analogies that can help your organization avoid falling victim to computer virus hoaxes and hypes.

The Hype: What Ticke Me Elmo and Tamagocchi have in common...

Hype, derived from the word "hyperbole", is defined as PUBLICITY; especially: promotional publicity of an extravagant or contrived kind[5].

Here, we will examine two well-known non-viral hypes: The Tickle Me Elmo doll and the virtual pet Tamagocchi. In both these cases we observe one particular toy gaining enormous popularity, becoming almost overnight a "must have" item. This fame is not merely the result of a good product well marketed, but also bears many of the distinguishing characteristics of hype.

Tickle Me Elmo is a doll, which laughs and shakes when tickled. In a frenzy somewhat reminiscent of the Cabbage Patch Kids [6], Tickle Me Elmo underwent a transformation from a Sesame Street character from the Children's Television Network, to a relatively simple to find and purchase children's toy to a cult hero with his own fan club. By December 1996, Elmo dolls were being sold to the highest bidder via newspaper ads and auction. Enterprising Internet users, in some cases, even established World Wide Web sites to facilitate the transactions. By early December of 1996, Tickle Me Elmo had gone from a high-quality reasonably priced toy (US$23.99-US$54.99 are the retail prices we found for this toy during the month of December, 1996) to a luxury item. Some people even stating that they would be willing to pay any price for one of the dolls [7].

The Tamagocchi, which translates as "cute little egg", is a key-chain computer game about the size and shape of an egg. The game is marketed as a "virtual pet". These virtual pets first appeared in late 1996, and are still in high demand as of August 1997, with many stores in the New York area limiting the number of Tamagocchi sold to individual customers. The pet is actually a tiny computer game, which begins when an "egg" on the display screen hatches into an animated icon somewhat reminiscent of a chicken. The virtual pet owner then takes care of the little "chicken" by using three tiny buttons to play with it, clean up after it, and discipline it. According to an article in The Washington Post [3], over 500,000 of the virtual pets have been sold, and are the Tickle Me Elmos of Japan. Prices for the pets from toy stores start at around $15.00, yet people desperate to own them have claimed paying as much as $1900.00 for a single pet. The success of this particular hype has spawned look-a-likes; the Tamagocchi shortage in America has created a market for virtual pet clones, and we have observed several sizes and shapes of virtual pets, often having similar sounding names.

What makes some hypes successful and some not? For now, we ask you to consider the following questions. What makes the public cry for more Tamagocchis, while the virtual pet clones continue to hang on racks in the toy stores? Why did Tickle Me Elmo capture the delight of thousands, while other equally cute characters sat on shelves, waiting for a child to ask for them on Christmas day? As you consider these questions, we will continue our exploration with an examination of "The Hoax."

The Hoax: "As you know, I can travel in time"

Hoaxes are defined as "bamboozle, fool, chicane, flimflam, trick" and "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous" [5].

In this section we will provide two important examples of non-viral hoaxes: Crop Circles and the mystic, Carlos. In both cases, the hoaxes were accompanied by intense media interest and speculation; speculation which eventually proved false.

Circles in the Corn

In the early 70's a strange and mostly unnoticed phenomenon began to manifest itself in rural England. Mysterious circles pressed into cornfields began to appear. Initially very simple, over a period of ten years these crop designs became increasingly complex; circles attached to circles, circles tangential to circles. The most familiar pattern showed a large circle in the center of a square of four smaller circles.

Speculation was rampant concerning the cause of the mysterious cereal designs. Some sites were examined and a whole field (pun intended) of "science" was born. Some theories ascribed the circles to columnar vortices or ring vortices. Some, ball lightning; still others, that there were aliens among us, nocturnally and secretively (and presumably invisibly) landing in fields. Many books were published (there was even a journal devoted to the subject) and an awestruck and concerned public hung on every word printed by the popular press. Over time, the circles spread, and as of August 1997 have been reported all over the world, including the United States, Canada and Japan.

In 1991, however, the true cause of the crop circle mystery revealed itself: Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.

British hoaxters Doug Bower and Dave Chorley have admitted to making crop circles for 15 years [8][9]. Their confessions gained little attention, and like the confessions of many other crop-circle hoaxters, have been overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the initial discoveries of the circles. Despite that the hoaxters demonstrated to a variety of journalists that they could reproduce the most complex cereal designs, the revelation that nothing more other-worldly than a plank and some string was responsible for the patterns received very little media attention [10]. Most notably, it is our belief that although many hundreds of thousands of people could describe the crop circles in some detail, very few actually are even aware that it is a proven hoax.

The Carlos Affair

In 1988, several Australian newspapers, magazines and television stations began receiving press kits describing the remarkable talents of Jose Luis Alvarez. Essentially, Alvarez claimed to be a channel for the spirit Carlos, an ancient soul whose teachings would be "both a shock and an inspiration" - a spirit who could travel in time. In [11] Carl Sagan describes one of Carlos' appearances:

Alvarez seated himself on a low couch. His pulse was monitored. Suddenly, it stopped. Seemingly, he was near death. Low guttural noises emanated from deep within him. The audience gasped in wonder and awe. Suddenly, Alvarez's body took on power. His posture radiated confidence. A broad, humane, spiritual perspective flowed out of Alvarez's mouth. Carlos was here!

Shortly after this sensational appearance and associated media coverage, it was revealed that the entire Carlos affair was a hoax. Using a young performance sculptor, and applying an old magic trick to make it appear as if one's pulse has stopped, magician James Randi and Sixty Minutes had engineered a beautiful hoax.

Although there are many interesting facets to the Carlos hoax, the most interesting in terms of this paper is that the Australian media seemed to make almost no serious effort to check the accuracy of any of the information distributed by Alvarez. The press kit that was distributed had several inconsistencies and facts that could have easily been verified but were not. Thus, although all the tools needed to uncover the fraud were in plain sight, the hoax was successful!

Virus Hype and Virus Hoax: Michelangelo and Good Times

Now that we have examined some non-computer related hypes and hoaxes, let us give examples of one computer virus hype and one virus hoax before examining what factors all these hypes and hoaxes have in common. A more complete listing of actual virus hypes and hoaxes is given in Appendix A, along with a practical guide for minimizing the impact of hypes and hoaxes within your organization.


The most fitting and grandest hype of all time within the virus world was that which surrounded the Michelangelo virus. In the lead up to March 6th, 1992, the media coverage was so intensive that it was claimed that the University of Hamburg received over 25 mailbags full of requests for the VTC's free Michelangelo cure program. According to information about the hoax presented on the Computer Virus Myths World Wide Web Site,, it was during the leadup to "Michelangelo Day" that John McAfee reportedly claimed that "anywhere from 50,000 to five million" computers were infected [12]. When stories about the virus reached the popular press, the hype was truly unleashed. Reporters and newsgroups sprouted previously unknown "experts" on the virus, spreading even more misinformation. Virus Bulletin reported receiving calls from three separate users who had followed the accurate but short-sighted advice that a good way to see if one's computer was infected was to set the date to the trigger conditions and see if the virus triggered [13]. Believing hype can be dangerous.

Good Times

The most well known alert about a non-existent virus is the Good Times virus hoax. In 1994, the following electronic post began to circulate via the Internet:

Here is some important information. Beware of a file called Goodtimes. Happy Chanukah everyone, and be careful out there. There is a virus on America Online being sent by E-Mail. If you get anything called "Good Times", DON'T read it or download it. It is a virus that will erase your hard drive. Forward this to all your friends. It may help them a lot.

Despite the fact that many prominent anti-virus researchers and Virus Bulletin quickly debunked the report as entirely fallacious, the myth of the Good Times virus refused to die, even resurfacing several months later, only to be once again reported as false in Virus Bulletin [14]. Indeed, even today queries about the Good Times virus are still occasionally seen on Internet newsgroups.

The text of the original message was rewritten and transformed several times. In one variation of the message, the virus placing the processor into "an nth-complexity infinite binary loop". However, the gist of the Good Times virus message remains the same: "This virus will erase your hard drive, be sure to tell all of your friends, pass this message along -- and beware of any e-mail with the Subject heading of 'Good Times'." One variation on the Good Times theme is The PenPal hoax, which advises you to delete any message with the subject of "PENPAL GREETINGS", because if you read it, the "Trojan Horse virus" will destroy all the data on your hard drive.

Common Factors: The Reasons For The Spread of Hype and Hoaxes

Why do people believe in hoaxes and buy into hypes? What is it about hoaxes that makes people want to believe in them? Why do hoaxes of all types continue to circulate on the Internet? Some people think that those who enjoy sick jokes, and like to exploit the innocent spread hoaxes. Some cite the search for truth and goodness in others as a characteristic within each of us that makes us want to believe what we are told, no matter how outrageous. Others claim personal or professional prejudice and the need to find backing for our own agenda as reasons we pass believe and pass along some hypes and hoaxes. We will examine some of these rationales later in this paper, but for now, consider these questions: Do hypes and hoaxes spread solely based on images they contain? Are there feelings and needs within each of us which make us willing victims of hype and hoax?

In the preceding sections we have examined six examples of hypes and hoaxes. In the case of the hypes, we have observed that an apparently unremarkable issue gained disproportionate media attention. It is difficult to predict how a simple child's toy can reach the heady heights of a "must have" item, at any price. Some would argue that marketing and the media play a huge role in creating, or propagating, hype. While it is true that various forms of communications media can be used to spread a message which carries the hype, it must be remembered that it is people who decide if they will or will not buy into the idea which is being hyped. In the case of a hoax, we also have an idea that becomes widespread even though there is little or no evidence to base it on. We would argue that the underlying mechanism for hypes and hoaxes is identical, and that the principal difference is that while a hoax has its basis in fiction, hype has its basis, at least at some level, in fact. With that in mind, we will go on to consider how and why these ideas spread.

One critical point in all the hoaxes examined is that the hoax was far more interesting and popular than its explanation. In the case of the Good Times virus, there was plenty of information widely available that seeming should have, even to the most inexperienced researcher, caused the "facts" presented in the message to arouse large amounts of suspicion.

Why, then, are hoaxes and hype so readily propagated? We believe the following five factors are central to the reasons for both hoax and hype transmission.

1. Trust in authority

For many of us, our lives condition us to accept data as correct based upon the perceived authority of the person or group of people providing the data. That is, we tend to build up a belief structure based upon the past track record of those people who have provided us with information in the past. If a source has proved accurate in many things, it is natural to extend a certain amount of credulity to new information gathered from that source. While this is necessary in order to simply live (one cannot check every fact which one receives) such trust based upon history can be dangerous. In the sciences, for example, there are certain theories which are stated and upon which we build new models. However, should an underlying theory or assumption be proved false, many layers of later work may have to be stripped back to remove this flaw in the very foundations of a model. While acceptance of "proved" scientific fact, which has been published in reputable journals, is not unreasonable, we also tend to give our trust to other "authorities" such as newspapers and television shows. As the old adage goes, one cannot believe everything that one reads. However, choosing where to draw the line between truth and fiction can be problematic. Suffice it to say that it is difficult to underestimate the effect that the media has upon our thoughts and opinions. This problem is magnified in the cyberspace environments, where little thought is given to authentication of sources: if you proclaim yourself to be an expert loudly and often enough, you are often accepted as such.

2. Excitement

If you have ever had the misfortune to be driving along an interstate heading towards a bad accident on the other side of the median, you are familiar with the morbid curiosity which humans have for the bizarre and often gruesome. We believe that in the case of hoaxes, we receive a sense of excitement by passing on the hoax, almost like gossip. The sense of power and knowledge, and the frisson of pleasure which is imparted by reading about the latest, most deadly virus, tends to encourage us to share this information more widely, possibly embellishing the truth to increase the excitement provided.

3. Lack of appropriate scientific skepticism

Many of the hoaxes which we have discussed could have been disproved by the application of ordered and valid scientific techniques. In the case of Carlos, the entire incident could have been disproved with even a minimum amount of research. In the case of the Good Times virus hoax, Virus Bulletin quickly published that the e-mail message being circulated was not accurate, to no avail. Had a reader of the Good Times hoax been seriously interested in checking the accuracy of the information he had received he could easily have done so, yet many copies of the message were passed along with little or no fact checking.

It seems to be the case that we do not even apply the level of skepticism we would when buying a used car to many hoaxes. For example, it would be an unwise for a car buyer to check none of the facts stated by the seller, yet how often do we accept the word of a complete stranger while browsing the Internet! People have a tendency to accept what they read on the Internet without considering whether or not the source is a known trustworthy source. Information from friends is often accepted at face value, as the friend is a known trustworthy person. Evaluation of the qualifications of the friend or co-worker to advise in the areas of computer viruses is often neglected. Application of legitimate scientific skepticism is perhaps our most powerful weapon in the battle against hoaxes: use it.

4. Sense of importance or belonging

Sharing "important" information about new and/or exciting things can help a person feel more a part of a group. This is especially the case when the information offers a way to help the group, or further the needs or interests of the group. The act of sharing helps establish the individual as an integral part of the group. The act of contributing to the security or well-being of a group, or employer, can increase the individual's sense of belonging to that group or organization. When a person is the only one to bring these important notices to the attention of a group, he establishes himself as an even more important "provider" of information. He can become the company's "Virus Expert".

5. Furthering our own goals/self-interest/agenda

In the case of some non-viral hypes, individual agenda can be clearly and easily seen. For the person with a strong belief in "the supernatural" or "the occult", hoaxes about spiritualistic visitations help further their own agenda, bringing strength to their arguments. These hoaxes may be passed on as a way to say "See? I was right! And here is someone else, an authority, who backs me up!"

Hoaxes concerning viruses are often passed along by people with a sincere interest in protection of the system from viruses. The hoaxes provide a way to demonstrate their commitment, and reinforce what they may have been saying: VIRUSES ARE A PROBLEM. In the case of hypes, the language of the hype may be used to help further the cause for increased security budgets, increased personnel, and increased reliance on the person responsible for doing the "protecting".

Finally, consider the following motivations used by individuals when considering whether or not to pass on an e-mail message. From [15], we find these presented as components of a hoax known as The Blue Star Meme Hoax - they are just as applicable to any virus hype or hoax you may find.

While each of these motivations is noble, each is insufficient for passing along an unsubstantiated virus warning. Your company may wish to let employees know that while their loyalty and good intentions are valuable, in the case of information about computer viruses, they should refer to a centralized source of information. One such resource is the antivirus online World Wide Web Site,, where accurate and timely information on virus hypes and hoaxes is made freely available.

While the points made above at some level outline some of the reasons why hypes and hoaxes become successful, one important question cannot be meaningfully addressed by simply examining the human motivations and transport mechanism of the hoaxes/hype. In an attempt to ascertain which hypes and hoaxes will be successful and which will not, we will turn to the work of Richard Dawkins and the concept of the meme.

The Meme

The hypes and hoaxes with which we are concerned are text-based communications of ideas. Ideas in general spread throughout human populations. Increased connectivity has brought with it the ability to spread these ideas using e-mail, and has enabled ideas to spread much more quickly and more widely than in the past. In seeking ways to scientifically measure and model why certain ideas are passed along and some not, researchers have expanded on the postulated existence of something called "memes". The meme is a self-replicating pattern of information which propagates via the human mind, interacting with the mind, adapting, mutating, and persisting. In other words, a meme is a "virus of the mind". Oxford scholar Richard Dawkins first publicized this idea in "The Selfish Gene" [16].

Meme theory, as developed by Dawkins and expanded on by other scientists working in the fields of evolutionary biology, anthropology and linguistics, would seem to indicate that while hoaxes and hypes are not the only non-biological entities that may spread according to "natural selection", they would be good candidates for its application. Change due to selection is a universal principle of self-replicating systems, and the systems that exhibit natural selection possess certain properties. Specifically, if a system has the property of imperfect replication and a mechanism to preferentially replicate those objects which are more successful, the system can be expected to undergo change due to natural selection [17]. While there are critics of extending this evolutionary model to culture, Dawkins' work on meme theory has been used to promote the concept that by studying the meme, we can predict how and why ideas will spread.

Simply put, effective memes can be entities such as sex, danger, profit, love, and fear. The presence of these effective memes in an idea (or e-mail message containing the idea) may push what some call an "evolutionary button", making us more likely to pay attention and pass on the meme and the message containing it - survival of the fittest. They take on lives of their own, independent of their creator, and begin evolving, exactly as we observed with the Good Times hoax.

One place this idea has been explored is in "Hunting the Wild Meme: Assessing Cultural Replicator Fitness" [18]. Here, Richard Pocklington analyzes a corpus of chain letters to determine which elements of the chain letter play a role in the letters' replicative success. The chain letters were collected over a three-year period and parsed using a method of text analysis called the Eigen-text method [18]. This parsing produced data that was then manipulated by a phylogeny inference software package (PHYLIP) [18], resulting in an evolutionary history of the letters. Using this history, an estimation was made to determine the relative population sizes of the chain letters, and the significance of word groups could be studied. These "memetic adaptive strategies" are examined in detail in [18]. Simply put, how often something appeared and changed could be directly correlated with its evolutionary history, showing that the meme (or idea) adapted linguistically, with the successful adaptation resulting in survival. It is believed by some that these errors, modifications, and elaborations (mutations) are what determine whether or not people will be more likely to believe the idea. If they believe the idea, the idea will survive, and in some cases, survive and expand. One interesting aspect of this study is that it uses the application of a statistical technique which does not depend on meme theory to find and describe units of selection which can be used to construct the evolutionary model; that is, the word sets were derived from the actual data and were not categories constructed by the researchers. However, the results seem to indicate that memetic adaption (that is, natural selection and evolution) was present in the system, and that certain structures and grouping of words were more successful than others.

There are critics of this theory of the meme as a "virus of the mind"; indeed, of cultural replicators in general. One of the more common criticisms is that ideas are not particulate; however the ideas which are replicated throughout cultures can be described as discrete, with histories which can be traced and documented. Others argue that advocates of meme theory describe the patterns of growth, change, replication, but do not really explain those patterns. One critic of the idea of the meme as a "virus of the mind" is Benzon [19], who states that memes are in the external physical environment, not in the brain, and cannot be copied from brain to a book, or from human to human in any sense of the word "copy". He bases this on the presupposition that when two people sing the same song, or read the same book, they have substantially different mental processes.

Yet another different criticism is offered by Onar Am [20], who believes that memes bear more resemblance to m-RNA than to viruses, in that they catalyze the mental and cultural processes rather than actual act as the replicators themselves. Whether or not he argues these points successfully is beyond the scope of this paper.

The theories and arguments surrounding memetic theory should provoke interesting "thought" about the idea of cultural replicators; however, it is too early to tell if the idea of the meme and the science of memetics represent the beginning of a true scientific paradigm shift. Daniel Dennett, in Consciousness Explained [21], offers this insight into the meme:

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes. The avenues for entry and departure are modified to suit local conditions, and strengthened by various artificial devices that enhance fidelity and prolixity of replication: native Chinese minds differ dramatically from native French minds, and literate minds from illiterate minds. What memes provide in return to the organisms in which they reside is an incalculable store of advantages, with some Trojan horses thrown in for good measure. Think about it.

Virus Hypes, Hoaxes and Memetics

Applying memo theory, we can see that Michelangelo hype discussed previously in this paper carried with it the meme of "danger". This is a seemingly common motif in virus hoaxes and hypes: many of the hoaxes discussing in detail in antivirus online ( contain the meme (but not necessarily the word) "danger" and dire warnings to those who do not follow the given instructions. Our example hoax, the Good Times virus, also made good use of the meme "danger". Thus, we can see that the meme "danger" seems to be important to the transmission of virus hoaxes and hypes. All this seems somewhat obvious (after all, who would worry about a virus if it didn't purport to be dangerous?) but we can draw more from the meme model.

In memetic theory, there is a meme-complex, which is basically "the gist" of the idea. The meme-complex of the virus hypes and hoaxes we observed contain, in addition to the meme of danger, the element of "bait". The bait in this case is the reward of maintaining the integrity of the data, and of doing the "right" or "helpful" thing by telling everyone else about the "danger". Finally, memetic theory uses the concept of a "vaccime". The vaccime is defined [22] as "any meta-meme which confers resistance or immunity to one or more memes, allowing that person to be exposed without acquiring an active infection. Also called an 'immuno-meme'. Common immune-conferring memes are 'Faith', 'Loyalty', 'Skepticism', and 'tolerance'."

Thus, if computer virus hypes and hoaxes are memetic, we should be able to limit their propagation and effect upon our organizations by disseminating in advance the correct vaccime. In the case of viral hypes and hoaxes, many of the important elements of such vaccimes are, quite simply, ideas which can be put into policies, and are outlined specifically using virus hoax case histories, in Appendix A. Here, we will limit ourselves to more general comments.

In the case of computer virus hoaxes and hypes, the very idea of testing ideas for theoretical consistency is one of the strongest "anti-hoax" techniques you can use. Unfortunately, while such a meme may be very effective at conferring resistance, it has also historically not been as successful in terms of replication as the memes which it attempts to counter. Of course, every person with access to e-mail in your organization may not have the technical ability to determine whether or not a warning about a virus is accurate. Determining the theoretical consistency of the content of virus warnings may be simply beyond their ability, or outside the scope of their job duties. However, this responsibility can be assigned to the person within your organization who is responsible for keeping up to date on real virus and security threats. This designated individual may make use of valid warnings, which can come from vendors or which may be issued by response teams such as CERT (, and pass them on via pre-approved channels. It is important to keep in mind that these warnings should be digitally signed and authenticated, as there have been instances of forged warnings. Additionally, warnings that do not contain the name of the person sending the original notice, or warnings which appear from addresses that do not exist should be questioned.

We discussed earlier the ways in which some virus e-mail hoaxes call upon the loyalty of the recipient to his friends. "Pass this message along, and save them a lot of trouble" is a common theme. By instilling the knowledge in your employees that passing along unauthorized virus information may actually harm your organization, and have a negative impact on productivity, you provide your employees with the opportunity to be loyal to his friends, co-workers and organization in a positive way. The virus hypes and hoaxes often cite recognized authorities, and as we have shown, people like to pass along messages which cite these credible sources. By making it company policy to only allow circulation of mail from a predetermined recognized authority, you provide your employees with the opportunity to cite with confidence the type of information which they value, and which will help your organization. A centralized source of information is invaluable in keeping rumors and inaccurate information to a minimum.


In this paper we have examined several examples of hoax and hype, first generally, and then virus specific. We have looked at some of the reasons why hoaxes spread, including self-interest, lack of skepticism and trust in authority. Additionally, we have suggested the application of memetic theory to the area of virus hypes and hoaxes in order to gain some measure of how widespread a particular hoax is likely to become.

By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms which underlie the successful hoax and hype, we have established a set of heuristics which allow us to judge how well a particular message fits the criteria for being a hoax.

The most powerful form of defense against hoaxes is to build up a set of trusted sources of information which have a good track record for accuracy. This approach alone, along with a good measure of skepticism, will protect the reader from the vast majority of all virus misinformation circulated.

Whether virus hypes and hoaxes are passed on as a result of memes, or human characteristics, or a combination of both, or neither, we have observed that just as viruses must have certain characteristics to survive in the wild, so must messages which are in reality virus hoaxes or hypes. Whether we refer to these characteristics as survival mechanisms, or think of them as "aids to natural selection", the end result is the same - hoaxes and hypes continue to cause disruption, costing your organization time and money. Thinking about how and why hoaxes and hypes continue to spread is the most effective way you can stop them from spreading. In Appendix A, we present a practical guide to using simple user-friendly heuristics to spot virus hoaxes and hypes. Additionally, information on current virus hypes and hoaxes may be found at:

Finally, we would like you to consider the following quote from Sagan's wonderful book "The Demon Haunted World":

The tenets of skepticism do not require an advanced degree to master, as most successful used car buyers demonstrate. The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. All science asks is to employ the same levels of skepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their television commercials.

Appendix A. How to Spot a Virus Hoax


  1. The Hype Curve: New Technology as the Modern-Day Gold Rush. Eric Elias and Brock Hinzmann. SRI Consulting. 1996.
  2. He's Elmo and he's hot. Gary Sprott. The Tampa Tribune. December 4th, 1996.
  3. Cheep thrills: Virtual chickens need care and attention, or they'll croak. Kevin Sullivan. The Washington Post, Jan 25th, 1997
  4. The Demon-Haunted World. Carl Sagan. Random House, January 1996. pp. 225-229, 236-241
  5. Webster's Dictionary Online. WWWebster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1996.
  6. The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites. Jan Harold Brunvand. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1986. pp. 74-75
  7. Parents in Hot Pursuit of Elmo Doll. Franca Lewis. Herald-Mail. Hagerstown, Md. Dec. 16th, 1996.
  8. Faking UFOs. Roel Van der Meulen. Self Published, 1994.
  9. The Demon Haunted World. Carl Sagan. Random House, January 1996. pp. 73-77
  10. Round in Circles. Jim Schnabel. Penguin Books. 1994.
  11. The Demon Haunted World. Carl Sagan. Random House, January 1996.
  12. Computer Virus Myths World Wide Web Site,
  13. Michelangelo - A Post Mortem. Virus Bulletin. April 1992. pp. 2-3 Virus Bulletin
  14. Good Times, Bad Times. Virus Bulletin. May 1995. p.3
  15. Applying Natural Selection Thinking to Urban Legends. Dave Gross.
  16. The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press. 1976.
  17. Cultural Evolution and Units of Selection in Replicating Text. Richard Pocklington and Michael L. Best. Journal of Theoretical Biology: Pre-print.
  18. Hunting the Wild Meme: Assessing Cultural Replicator Fitness. Richard Pocklington. In progress.
  19. Culture's Evolutionary Landscape: A Reply to Hans-Cees Speel. William Benzon. 1996 Self Published
  20. The NK Model Applied to Memetics: Further Grounding. Onar Am. Self Published. April 1995.
  21. Consciousness Explained. Daniel Dennett, Allen Lane. 1991
  22. Memetic Lexicon. Grant, Glenn. Self Published. 1990
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