SOCIETY

Debunking myths on the Internet

On March 14, the Health Ministry issued an odd announcement, citing sources from the Poison Information Center at the Aglaia Kyriakou Children’s Hospital, which reported a significant spike in cases of cyanide poisoning linked to the consumption of bitter almonds and apricot kernels. The announcement was not widely reported in the media. At the same time, meanwhile, a slew of “reports” were making the rounds on the Internet expounding the beneficial qualities of bitter almonds and apricot kernels, saying they helped battle cancer. These articles usually ended by saying that the reason the great qualities of these foods are not widely known is that pharmaceutical companies did not have a stake in their promotion.

This was one of the cases where Theodoros Daniilidis’s hobby of debunking false news on his blog (ellinikahoaxes.blogspot.gr) came close to resembling his profession as a mine clearer for the Hellenic Army. In a post on the issue, he carefully analyzed the unconfirmed theories surrounding the cancer-fighting qualities of bitter almonds and apricot kernels. “I have never asked [readers] to disseminate any of my articles, but I will do so now because people’s lives are really at stake,” he wrote. According to the Health Ministry, in fact, the ingestion of amygdalin can produce cyanide, which can prove lethal at high levels.

Daniilidis never lets issues such as this one go. “I would always tell my friends when something they have seen written or republished on social networking sites is a lie or a hoax. I soon got tired of all the explanations, though, and decided to create a blog,” he told Kathimerini recently.

The first case of an Internet lie that he examined on his blog was an appeal from the family of a man identified as Vangelis Merisiotis, aged 28, who was allegedly at Evangelismos Hospital in central Athens and desperately needed a blood transfusion. The appeal was sent from e-mail to e-mail for years and it did actually result in hundreds of blood donations being made to Evangelismos for the nonexistent patient. Debunking the story was not that hard, because the lie had already started to unravel before Daniilidis started his blog.

“The first case where I didn’t have any help from any outside sources concerned a photograph of a girl at an Iraqi orphanage who allegedly drew a picture of how she imagined her mother to be in chalk on the ground and fell asleep in its arms. The photograph started making its way around social networking sites and even news outlets last May, tugging at the public’s heartstrings as the girl had allegedly lost her mother in the war. As it turned out, the image was part of a photography project and the child was the photographer’s cousin.”

From harmless tales to dangerous lies about health issues, there are plenty of myths out there on Greek Internet sites that are usually linked to current affairs.

“Now, during the crisis, there are a lot of myths circulating about ancient Greece and how superior we are compared to other people,” said Daniilidis. “There are also a lot of lies concerning migrants, while the most persistent is the chemtrails conspiracy [suggesting that the public is being sprayed with diseases and psychotropic drugs to make them more submissive etc].”

Flawed logic

Every myth requires a different weapon to be debunked, says Daniilidis.

“What I do is very simple and easy. I have the time to look for information and proof on a subject that I am researching. I read the texts carefully in order to find the places where the logic is flawed. I look for the original source of the myth. If there are specific names involved I look for whether they are real or not. I also spend a lot of time going through other international sites that are dedicated to debunking myths. If the text is a translation I look for the original. If the subject is scientific I will visit scientific websites to cross-check the information. Observation, logic and thorough research. The Internet is a wonderful tool when used correctly and it gives back in kind,” said Daniilidis.

Daniilidis believes that a lot of Internet users have trouble sifting through the sheer mass of information that is available every day online.

“A very large proportion of users mistakenly believe that the the Internet is like an encyclopedia and that everything we read on it is true. I hear the phrase ‘I read it online’ almost every day. Furthermore, most people will read and look for items that are of interest to them and that already conform to their own ideas. That makes the item easier to accept and believe. For example, someone who believes in the chemtrail theory would rather believe a false allegation by some unknown person than the official announcement of the Hellenic Air Force General Staff, which debunks everything he or she wants to believe in. Or someone with a serious health problem, desperate for a cure, may believe anything that offers hope and end up doing more harm by neglecting the proper course of treatment,” argued Daniilidis.

His advice? “Go with your gut and your logic. If something seems too incredible, then it is probably a lie or at least wildly inaccurate.”