Sorting out fact from fiction


Nearly everyone has heard the rumor that Coca-Cola used to put cocaine in their beverages to make them more addictive.

But is there any truth behind these claims? According to the website, the rumor is at least partly true: while there were traces of cocaine found in Coca-Cola through 1929, the amount was so little that it would not have been enough to have a serious effect on the human body.

Snopes, officially called the Urban Legends Reference Pages, checks the credibility of well-known rumors. Maintained by Barbara and David Mikkelson, Snopes sorts a variety of urban legends into more than 40 categories. The site covers everything from “lost legends” and “old wives’ tales” to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Every urban legend is marked as either “true,” “false,” having “multiple truth values,” “undetermined,” or “unclassifiable veracity.” In addition to simply being rated true or false, the site also explores the origins of rumors as well as the evidence that led to the rating.

While the site is often used for recreational purposes, it can also prove to be valuable for journalists. For example, the “Politics” section examines a number of rumors about politicians as well as rates the credibility of some of their quotes. In the website’s “Hot 25” section that lists the 25 urban legends that are circulating most widely, many of the rumors relate to either politics or the government.

For example, the current top rumor relates to the “Debt Free America Act,” which deals with an Obama proposal to tax one  percent on credit card usage and bank transactions. However, Snopes rates this rumor as false, explaining that the rumor stems from a bill that has been introduced by Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania but has no support from any other members of Congress.

Another top rumor is that “Obamacare” creates a 3.8 percent tax on real estate transactions. This urban legend has been rated as a mixture of true and false since there is no added 3.8 percent tax on all home sales, simply on profits over the capital gains threshold. Knowing the truth behind such political rumors can help reporters tell stories more clearly.

With the website being maintained almost exclusively by two people, it is easy to question the credibility of the content. However, Snopes won two Webby awards in 2007 and has been the subject of stories done by reputable news organizations such as The New York Times, FactChecker, and BBC News.

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