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June 24, 2017

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Believing everything you read can make real world problems

Did you hear that North Korea claimed to have landed a man on the sun? The story that the reclusive, Stalinist state sent a 17-year-old astronaut to the "far side" of the sun after a four hour journey, and that he would soon be landing back in North Korea, spread across the internet last Friday. Backed up with a screenshot of a North Korean state television announcer in front of a picture of a rocket lifting off, many websites in the English- and Chinese-speaking worlds spread the report.

It was, of course, ridiculous. Our sun doesn't have a surface to land on, and if it did the radiation and heat put out would incinerate any man-made object before it could even come close. It seemed like North Korea was just making up wild claims for propaganda purposes again.

But as it turns out the story of the story wasn't true, either. North Korea never claimed they had gone to the sun, on state TV or otherwise. A brief Google search reveals that no major news organizations carried the story, and websites that did carry it had no video or transcripts from the alleged announcement. Further online backtracking indicates that the story originated on a website that clearly states it is satire.

So why did people around the world believe it? It could be because North Korea is notorious for producing ridiculous stories. For people only familiar with North Korea through the occasional news story about their more outlandish antics, North Korea is already a satire of a country.

But our rush to believe is also related to the fact that it is human nature to believe things that confirm our prejudices. This can be relatively harmless, such as the case of the North Korea story, or it can reveal a deeper, more disturbing prejudice.

A story making the rounds in the United States concerns the "knockout game." Media outlets report that certain segments of the population are filming themselves hitting random people and then posting a video online. If the stories are to be believed, this is a serious problem. Opinion pieces are calling for legislation to punish perpetrators and decrying the fact that more isn't being done.

Just like the North Korea story, it isn't true. There is no "knockout game" epidemic sweeping the U.S. A closer look reveals that practically every incident reported as a potential example has not held up under further scrutiny, instead turning out to be just a mundane instance of the dozens of normal assaults that occur daily in the U.S. Also, the idea that people would film themselves committing a crime and then post that video on the Internet is a bit silly upon further thought.

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