The Internet has made it possible to share information across the globe instantaneously. At the same time, it has also given new meaning to the phrase "one fool makes many". All it takes is one person to send out a false story, and pretty quickly you'll have millions of people sharing the falsehood. It started with chain emails, then instant messaging (BBM broadcasts being the worst of the lot), and quickly gained a foothold on social media sites as well. So how do you weed out the facts from the lies online? Here are three pointers.
Check The Source: Before you believe any information, always find out where it originated. Some websites exist solely for the purpose of posting disinformation. They may claim to be satire sites, or may simply be attempting to draw traffic with sensational stories. If the source is questionable, it's likely that the information is unreliable.
Search Reliable Sites: If you are unable to determine the source of a rumour, then check reliable news sites. Legitimate sites have a reputation to protect, and will spend more time vetting information. If they don't have the story, it's likely incorrect or at best unconfirmed. This is not to say that legitimate sites don't make mistakes. Yahoo! Mexico famously fell for the fake news story about Samsung settling a lawsuit with Apple with a billion dollars worth of coins. No site is infallible, but not all are equal in their journalistic standards.
Too Good To Be True: Sometimes the information that we receive isn't a news item, but an attempt to scam us personally. In these cases, approaching everything with a healthy dose of scepticism will protect us. As the old adage say: "if it's too good to be true, it probably is". With this in mind, it is highly unlikely that someone you never heard of died and left you a fortune. It is equally unlikely that you won a lottery that you never entered.
There are also resources online that will do the research for you, and will debunk false stories and chain mail. One very good resource is the website Snopes.com. It has established itself as the definitive "Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation". They trace the origins of the stories, their various iterations and rehashes, and provide proof of their invalidity.
Given the power of the Internet to disseminate information, there is no excuse to fall for hoaxes. Do your research, and don't believe everything you read.