My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Utah, had an interesting fellow in the English department who collected stories that people swore were true, but were not. He invented a term for them: “Urban legends.” Jan Brunvand paid due academic attention to the folklore aspects of the stories, especially in his books, such as The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. (Alas, no, I never took a class with him.) I hope he copyrighted and trademarked the phrase, though I doubt he did. Brunvand was the first in what is now a minor industry in debunking bad information — see Snopes.com, for example.
Were I a young graduate student in folklore, I’d be collecting internet hoaxes the same way, and seeking a term to describe them that would be the label for the next round. Or, perhaps, Dr. Brunvand is still collecting them on his ski or fly-fishing trips.
In a post I just found from August 6, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer debunked, for the third time, an internet hoax about Mars. No kidding. “Mars will look as big as the Moon!” the e-mail exclaims.
No, it won’t.