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Top 10 Net Hoaxes / Urban Legends of 2004

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The Eye of God

"The Eye of God"

[NASA, WIYN, NOAO, ESA, Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), T. A. Rector (NRAO)]

The year is at an end and it's time to unveil About's partly-scientific, partly-subjective roundup of the Top 10 Net Hoaxes and Urban Legends of 2004. Contenders were ranked according to reader interest and longevity as measured by volume of email submissions, page views and search queries throughout the year.

Unsurprisingly, the threat of terrorism and the conflict in Iraq figured prominently in the Netlore of 2004, alongside more "evergreen" topics such as sex, missing children, uncanny images and, of course, free money. In a somewhat less predictable result, the Top 10 wound up almost entirely free of political content despite a torrent of rumormongering in connection with the U.S. presidential election during the latter half of the year. Netlore aficionados will note that several of the items on the list, though long since debunked, are holdovers from previous years, proving yet again that "the truth never stands in the way of a good story."

That said, I should clarify that just because a particular specimen of Netlore appears on this list, that doesn't necessarily mean it's false, though most of the entries are indeed "factually challenged" in one way or another. Hoaxes are false by definition, of course, but not everything on this year's hit parade, which also includes rumors and urban legends, qualifies as such.

Here, in ascending order of popularity, are About's Top 10 Net Hoaxes and Urban Legends of 2004:

10. 'Sex Bracelets'
Rumor has it there is a game popular among junior high school students in the United States called "Snap," in which sexual favors are granted to whoever breaks a jelly bracelet off of someone else's wrist. What is a jelly bracelet, you ask? Let me put it this way: if you have teenaged children and you don't know the answer to that question, you will want to educate yourself on the subject, which caused quite a stir this past year in many parts of the U.S.

9. Bill Gates Is Giving Away His Fortune!
Believe it or not, this logic-defying Internet hoax is seven years old and still going strong. As originally composed, Microsoft founder Bill Gates purportedly promised in a personal message to pay $1,000 to each and every person who helped him beta test his new "email tracking software" by forwarding the missive to everyone they know. Subsequent versions included phony news reports about mergers taking place between AOL, Microsoft and chip manufacturer Intel. Do I need to add that not a word of this is true? Judging by the fact that this remains one of the top-circulating specimens of Netlore ever, evidently I do.

8. Patriotic Pepsi Can Omits 'Under God' in Pledge Excerpt
Though completely innocent of the charge, Pepsi-Cola inherited a sizable burden of bad publicity when an unknown hoaxer replaced the brand name "Dr Pepper" with "Pepsi" in an email circular condemning the former for omitting the phrase "under God" in an excerpt from the U.S. pledge of allegiance on a special promotional soda can. Despite a terse disclaimer on Pepsi's Website, hundreds of thousands of people accepted the hoax as true and passed it on to friends and family, urging them to boycott the popular soft drink in the name of outraged Christians everywhere.

7. Terrorists Are Buying UPS Uniforms on eBay
Despite a miniscule grain of truth — namely that articles of clothing bearing the UPS brand have occasionally shown up for auction on eBay, leading to at least one FBI investigation — the main implication of this still-circulating message from February 2003, dubbed "the urban legend of missing uniforms" by a United Parcel Service spokesperson, is false: no large cache of UPS uniforms has fallen into the hands of suspected terrorists. Definitely scary, if true; but it's not.

6. The Eye of God
This striking composite photo of the Helix Nebula, a "trillion-mile-long tunnel of glowing gases" 650 light-years away, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and Kitt Peak National Observatory in 2002. Because of the angle from which we view it here in our solar system, the unfathomably large Nebula bears an uncanny resemblance to the human eye — hence its popular nickname: "The Eye of God."

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