Typically you get a message from a friend that either warns you of something dire ('Don't open a message like this! It's a computer virus!' or 'Don't use this product, people have been killed by it'), or says 'like this picture and something amazing will happen' (it won't), or tells you something outrageous that really underlines your suspicions about someone in the public eye (most recently that Michele Bachmann wants to ban Halloween).
By all means pass this kind of thing on if it's true - but just as it's a good idea to wash your hands to avoid spreading nasty bugs, so it's a good idea to 'wash your brain' by doing a quick check before passing on these nasty messages.
I'd suggest three quick checks, which can be done in a few seconds. This can a) prevent a red face when you discover you were duped later and b) avoid these silly messages clogging up the e-waves. So:
- Do a quick search on Snopes. This long-running urban legend site is particularly good on the kind of message about viruses and evil products that do the rounds.
- Also do a quick search on Waffles at Noon. Though not as comprehensive as Snopes, this site is often better on picking up the latest silliness that is spreading via social networks. Here's Waffles on that Bachmann story.
- Do a quick Google search. If it is a hoax, there will probably be a clear reference to this on the first page. I did a Google search on 'Michelle Bachmann halloween' and apart from the delight of finding out you can get a Bachmann halloween costume, it was rapidly clear that this was a hoax. (You may wonder how there can be a video of her speech (the bottom item on the picture below) - this is because it's a video showing a still picture with a man reading 'her' words.)
We all get caught out occasionally, but by using these simple checks you can minimize the embarrassment.
Incidentally, as 'memes' are clearly more like viruses or bacteria than like genes, perhaps we should call them miruses or ideria. Just a thought...