On The Edge
David Galloway[Photo: David Galloway]
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Previously on the Edge
1/2: I told you so
12/26: Another 'dying child' chain letter
12/19: Another virus4you
12/12: Building a better virus
On the Edge archive

Hoax writers' technique

A friend named Dianna sent me the following on Saturday:

I am trying to verify the authenticity of a letter I received via e-mail this morning. I am very careful not to pass on things that are not truth and which I personally have not checked out through other sources. Hoax sites on the Internet could not help me with this one, and since it was stated that I could check this out in the Oct. 10, 1994, article in the Houston Chronicle on Kevin Archer, I thought maybe you could help me. I have sent an e-mail communique to the main e-mail for the Chronicle but then saw your name on that site as well. This article supposedly states that Kevin died as a result of a needle injection of heroin while playing in a ball pit at a McDonald's and the investigation proved that there were needles, some empty and some full, feces, food, knives and a stench of urine. I question this article, since it is asking people to pass the warning to other parents and the article supposedly is so old. Could you help me validate or deny the authenticity of these accusations before I address the person who sent it to me.

Yes, I can help with this one.

A search of the Chronicle archives shows no article mentioning Kevin Archer on Oct. 10, 1994, or any other date. And there's only one article in the Chronicle archives that mentions "McDonald," "heroin" and "needle" in the same article, and that was about AIDS and drug users, and it quoted a doctor whose last name was McDonald.

Also, since I was in the news business in Southeast Texas in October 1994, I feel certain that I would have heard about that story if it were true.

That's one of the favorite techniques of hoax writers. They attach the name of a real publication and a specific date (far enough in the past to make verification difficult), and it makes their garbage seem much more authentic.

But some smart people like Dianna know that just because a warning on the Internet cites a reputable source, that doesn't mean the reputable source ever reported what's being claimed.

No, the Chronicle never reported on needles in the McDonald's playground. It didn't happen.

And now the rest of you know.

Thanks, Dianna.


David Galloway is a content supervisor and columnist for HoustonChronicle.com. He welcomes comments directed to David.Galloway@chron.com.