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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Life Cycle of a Rumor

One thing we’ve noticed at FactCheck is that e-mail rumors tend to circulate, get debunked (ideally), go dormant for a while, and then flare up again. Think of it as a horde of zombies — they come at you, you kill them, you breathe a sigh of relief, and then there’s an extreme closeup and a finger twitches and you realize they’re not really dead. That’s what it looks like from our end.

Different stories have different life cycles — some only take a breather before returning with renewed vigor, others play dead for months or years. For instance, there’s been little abatement in the rumor that Obama is a Muslim, but the furor about his birth certificate died down for a little while before resurfacing. And it’s only in the last couple of months that we’ve seen a serious recurrence of the story about Obama calling the National Anthem “bellicose,” which we debunked back in April. That one’s been revamped with a new dateline (September 7, 2008) in an attempt to keep it current, but it’s not — it’s rehashed satire.

Another zombie: the tall tale about the United Kingdom suspending its Holocaust curriculum to avoid offending Muslim students. We called shenanigans on that one ten months ago, but it’s making the rounds once more.

Perhaps the most egregious example circulating right now is the “David Letterman letter,” which we’ve gotten a couple dozen times since the beginning of September. We didn’t address this one, but Snopes did back in June — and they found that it’s been around since 2006, but at the time it was attributed to Jay Leno. Neither man wrote the letter, though one line is cribbed from a 2005 Leno monologue.

It’s interesting to watch these rumors evolve, but it’s always good to remember that the breaking news in your inbox might be a warmed-over rumor from years ago. For entertainment value, Snopes addresses some of the creakiest old stories (”The Vanishing Hitchhiker” dates back at least to 1945!) and looks at the ways that individual legends grow and change over time. For recent political rumors, don’t forget that you can search the Ask FactCheck archive or check our list of frequently asked questions. Watch out for zombies!