Lesson on dangers of viral messages

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am

Tall tales and urban legends are an inescapable part of life in a modern city. But the rise of mass electronic communication such as e-mails, Twitter and Facebook means they can now spread far and wide much faster than before.

An incident over the weekend highlighted the panic and alarm that the spread of viral messages can cause. Fortunately, the inadvertent sender of the message and the target organisation, Ocean Park, came forward and acted responsibly to quell the rumour. The incident should, nevertheless, serve as a cautionary tale about the danger and unreliability of many electronic messages, even those from sources we think we can trust.

It all started when a mother overheard a conversation at a bar about an attempted abduction of a two-year-old Western boy by two Chinese women at the theme park. Thinking the story was true, she e-mailed three friends about it. The e-mail then quickly went viral and ended in the in-boxes of thousands of people. The principal of an English Schools Foundation kindergarten circulated it to parents of all the children there. A leading bank sent it to all its employees.

An investigation by police and the park's management later determined that the boy was simply separated for a few minutes from his mother and it seems the two Chinese women were only trying to help him. The woman who sent the original message subsequently admitted she got the facts wrong but nevertheless cautioned parents to be vigilant about young children in public places. She is no doubt right about that, and there have been credible reports of child abductions across the mainland, including Shenzhen. However, Hong Kong remains not only one of the safest cities in China, but in the world.

The e-mail circulated so rapidly because it apparently resonated with concerns among expatriate mothers in Hong Kong over their children's well-being. Even so, let this be a lesson that even intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning people can fall for hoaxes and viral messages.