Look Before You Link 

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Saturday morning dawned clear and bright, but I knew the heat was coming. So I set off around 8 a.m. for a bike ride. I planned to pedal to Overton Park, hit the trails for a circuit or two, then get onto the Hamp Line down Broad and work my way back through Binghampton to Midtown.

When I came to the intersection of McLean and Poplar, I encountered a huge fustercluck of traffic and illegally parked cars on both sides of McLean. There was a line of people out the door of the Exxon station that stretched down the sidewalk for 50 yards.

What in the world?

I worked my way through the mess and continued north, figuring I'd find out later what was going on. What was going on, as everyone in Memphis now knows, was Z-Bo-gate — or Kiosk-gate, if you prefer. All over the city, kiosks set up for folks to pay their MLGW bills were giving people the information that their accounts were paid off. That news, which spread like a California wildfire on social media, was further fueled by a rumor that departing Grizzlies superstar Zach Randolph had given $1 million to MLGW to pay off people's utility bills.

Thousands of people waited hours in line to spend the $2 kiosk fee, happily exiting with zero-balance MLGW bills in hand, only to find out later that it was all a computer glitch of some sort and they'd just spent $2 — and wasted lots of time — chasing a fantasy.

What does this incident say about Memphis? For one thing, it says that we have a lot of poor people, folks desperate enough to get relief from, say, a $300 utility bill, that they would spend hours on a beautiful Saturday waiting in line, hoping for a miracle. It says further, that social media has the power to lead people down a primrose path of foolishness. And it says people will often believe what they want to believe, even in the face of what common sense or a little fact-checking might otherwise tell them.

But it's not just poor people or people looking to beat the system who fall for this kind of stuff. That same weekend, thousands (maybe millions) of people on Facebook passed along a pasted-in message urging everyone they knew not to accept a friend request from one Jayden K. Smith, because doing so would expose all their personal information. Or some such hogwash. That was also a hoax, and though it had nothing to do with getting a bill paid, it had everything to do with human gullibility or the lack of initiative to do a little fact-checking before passing along false information as gospel.

We, all of us — rich, middle-class, poor, black, white, brown — are constantly being inundated with news stories, rumors, memes, gossip, videos, and other useful and useless information through our phones and computers. It's often difficult to discern the difference between what is true and what is just internet horse puckery. The lines are blurred and getting blurrier as cries of "Fake news!" continue to emanate from the highest office in the land. That being the case, we should all keep in mind that the miraculous devices bringing us all this information also give us the ability to deter the spread of falsehoods by making an inquiring phone call or fact-checking via Google or Snopes.

The bottom line is that we all need to remember to look before we leap — or link. Or before we go stand in line for three hours with Jayden K. Smith.

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