How to spot an internet hoax (NYC Restaurant Mystery Solved?)

Recently an article has been making the rounds on Facebook and Reddit and I’m calling it: shenanigans! The viral message is too young to have made it on Snopes yet, but I suspect it’ll get there. In the meantime, church leaders need to have a keen eye to spot a hoax because the last thing we want to do is take part in the rumour mill.

The article in question was a posting on Craigslist about a “popular” New York City restaurant that was getting bad reviews. So the company hired a firm and together they managed to dig up an old surveillance video dating back almost exactly 10 years to this date (“coincidentally” one of the only surviving videos). The company compared that old video to a current surveillance video and compared the traffic of 45 customers in both.

What they found was that there was nothing wrong on their end. The blame was to fall squarely on their customers (eek!), and more specifically, on smartphones.

Here’s the incredible claim:

7 of 45 customers wasted 5 minutes showing waiters stuff on their phones. 26 of 45 customers wasted an average of 3 minutes taking pictures of their food. 14 of 45 customers wasted an average of 4 minutes taking pictures of each other. 9 of 45 customers had to have their food reheated because they were too busy taking pictures of each other to eat (apparently food gets really cold after 4 minutes). 27 out of 45 customers had waiters take group photos of them. And 14 of those had the waiters retake the photo adding another 5 wasted minutes. Then they played with their phones for 20 wasted minutes after they were done eating but before they requested their cheque. 8 out of 45 bumped into people due to texting and finally, they wasted another 15 minutes before they paid (and guess who the culprit was? Yup, smartphones).

How to spot a hoax

The article has all the clear signs of a typical internet hoax. I don’t have time to go into every sure sign, but here are a few biggies.

Is it believable?

The first clue to spotting a hoax is to ask the question: is it believable, reasonable, common sensical, and align with experience?

In this example is it believable that people ask wait staff to take pictures of them? Yes. Is it believable that people take pictures of their food? Yes. Is it believable that sometimes people play around on their phone before and after they order their food, or their cheque, or pay? Yes.

But! Are the numbers believable, reasonable, common sensical and align with experience? As they say, the best lies are seasoned with a pile of truth.

Have you ever sat in a restaurant and observed more than half of the restaurant make waiters take group photos of them? More than half? (“27 out go 45”) And how many people in restaurants sit around showing the wait staff stuff on their smartphones (honestly, I’ve probably almost never seen that)? And have you ever observed a whopping 17% of people bumping into each other at a restaurant because they are on their phones? 17% (8 of 45)! If you notice one or two, that would be a big deal, but 17%! As one person said on Reddit, “those numbers are so fake it’s like the author wasn’t even trying.”

But he was trying, because bloated numbers get the share worthy attention of people who are already inclined to agree.

Does it pander to confirmation bias?

As you work through the article a very clear agenda begins to show itself: smartphones are ruining society. Well chances are if you have a smartphone you don’t believe that. You probably know that (as with all things) there are dangers with abuse and misuse of smartphones. You’ve probably crossed the line yourself. I know I have.

But this article really panders to people who are already inclined to believe it. Psychologists refer to something called “confirmation bias.” It’s when people find things that confirms what they already believe, and seems to make an ostentatious argument that is so convincing that “anyone who reads it will have to agree.” And that’s how these articles spread like wildfire.

In the Reddit thread you can really tell which people have confirmation bias and which do not. The ones that do uncritically cheer for it, love it, weep over it and share it’s message. The ones that do not spend more time critically assessing the piece.

Can its source be confirmed?

Hoaxes are not new. Email hoaxes just like these have been circulating for 20 years now. When Facebook and Reddit came along so did the evolution of these type of viral hoaxes. The first thing you should do after you spot its unlikelihood and its pandering to confirmation bias is to search for a credible source. As crazy and unbelievable as it is, the article could very well be true. So go looking for a source before you decide.

In this case no credible source can be found. The article has been in circulation since about July 10 when it was posted on Craigslist, and no single credible website has picked it up. The reverse is the truth. Every website that I found where the article is “reported” has questionable credibility at best (I’m being generous).

Another question to ask is where did it originate? Was the poster “anonymous”? That’s a sure clue! Or in this example, what restaurant was it? In most cases when you read a story online about a “popular” something that remains anonymous, it’s almost certainly a hoax. The strategy is to give the article “credibility” by claiming that it originated with a “popular” something. It’s a trick as old as the book.

Conclusion

I don’t want to take up too much time piecemealing the article to death, but I could keep going. The point is that between internal evidence and external evidence, all signs point to this article as being no more than an elaborate hoax. And I think Christians of all people need to be very careful.

There are truths to be gleaned and here’s what I appreciate about this article: it reminds us of the potential danger of smartphone abuse.

However the means does not justify the end in this case. The article spreads fear and rumours and encourages others to spread them as well. It fosters a mentality that sees technology and in particular smartphones as the enemy and contributes to the ever-widening gap between millennials and the generations that came before. The net result is that older generations become less effective in their ability to help the younger ones navigate the future.

I’m working on a series of articles about generational sticking points but the one point I’ll make here is that millennials are not going to turn off their smartphones simply because older generations are telling them how smartphones are ruining society. Millennials are the first generation in history to lead the older generations in society (because that’s what they’re doing with or without the helpful wisdom of the older generations). And sharing these type of articles will only cause them to tune you out.

So be careful and cautious and don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Question: Have you seen this NYC Restaurant Mystery Solved hoax in your news feed? What did you first think? Do you believe the post or do you share my view that it’s a hoax? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Great points. I first saw it on LifeBuzz which popped up in my fb feed. One big clue, it starts out, “A famous restaurant in NYC…” Why not name the restaurant? Then what restaurant would publish in Craigslist instead of a real news outlet? Thanks for flagging this. You scooped Snopes!

    • Thanks for stopping by Dave.

      Those were two big clues for me too. 🙂

  • Michael Brooks

    The math was the big giveaway, for me. The article says that the restaurant was busy on the recorded day (magically exactly ten years ago), and that it was a bit busier in 2014. How is this possible if every table is sitting nearly twice as long?

    I love the focus here, to advise Christians against falsehood. I wrote about this issue myself recently, and you may find it worth the read: http://maikeru174.blogspot.com/2014/04/keeping-it-real_12.html

    God bless you in this endeavour!

    • Thanks Michael. I read your article. Good stuff! Keep it up.