‘Typhoid Mary’


Now she is called ‘Public Harm Auntie’ – in South Korea. In the 1980s and 90s she was known in the western world as ‘AIDS Mary’, a virulent and reckless transmitter of the HIV virus. In the twentieth-century America she was known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

These creatures of twisted history and folklore were – and are – said to be spreading deadly disease. In early 2020, Public Harm Auntie is wantonly infecting South Koreans with Corona virus, or COVID-19.

How durable are these mass delusions, the spawn of fear and misinformation? Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1869 migrated to the USA where she worked as a domestic and cook for wealthy households. In 1906, it was discovered that the families she worked for had developed typhoid. It turned out that Mary was a carrier of the disease, and immune to it herself. Authorities quarantined her and later let her free on condition she never worked as a cook again. Unfortunately, Mary did. When she was discovered, she was again quarantined – for twenty-three years until her death in 1938.

Over this period, a worldwide typhoid epidemic raged, killing one in ten victims. Assisted by the press, panic erupted in America centred on Mary’s grim reaper status. Hysteria, misinformation and prejudice did their usually dirty work and Mary became the cause of untold typhoid deaths across the country.

As always, the reality was much different. Mary was a carrier who never contracted the disease herself, as were about fifty others. Mary only infected 33 people, three of whom died of the disease.

AIDS Mary (sometimes ‘Harry’) was, according to popular belief, at least as lethal. But, unlike Mary Mallon, she never existed. And while Public Harm Auntie appears to be an actual person, the alleged number of her infections with COVID-19 is undoubtedly swelled through the transmission of rumour as much as the virus.

Typhoid May, AIDS Mary (Harry) and Public Harm Auntie were [products of the pre-digital era. Now we have the greatest transmitter of falsehood, ignorance and fake news ever invented. The World Wide Web will ensure that this information virus spreads much faster than the disease itself.


David Mikkelson, ‘Did Typhoid Mary Cause the Deaths of Thousands of People?’, The Snopes investigative and fact checking site is highly recommended as a vaccination against bullshit.



Finding Truth in the Age of Obfuscation


The unwelcome ability of the WWW to amplify error, delusion and straight-out lying has made us all potential victims of falsehood and flimflam. This includes, but is not limited to, disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, fake news, urbanmyths, rumour, moralpanics advertorials, and more!



Thereare a fewthings you can doto protect yourself from thenonsense.






Wheredoes the informationcome from? Howcan you knowit is it a reliable source andnot someone or somethinghoping to hoodwink you?


Someproviders of information are morereliable than others, usually because they havesome form ofbuiltin checkingprocess, such as peerreview in the caseof academic research or factchecking carried out by reputablemedia sources.


Itfollows that the bestsources of independently researched (not unsupported and uninformedopinion or biased market surveys) and objectively evaluated information are universitiesand quality print and/or digital media. Theseare increasingly being broughttogether in quality platforms such asThe Conversation, Aeon and other operationsthat publish quality research with alevel of editorialoversight.


Openslather platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and thelike are finefor chatting but docarry not reliableinformation. They are easilymanipulated by governments wishing to spreadpropaganda or rig elections,by vested commercialinterests and ideological zealots, as recent events have demonstrated.





Whenyou access anitem of information,try to workout the intentionof the author/s. Does thewriting try to putyou, the reader,into a particularposition or mindset? Ask yourselfwhy. Are theytrying to convince you ofa point ofview, sell youa product or anidea? Alarm youeven?


Aclassic giveaway in digital messages attempting to frightenyou into doingsomething, like chain letters,drug or otherscares LINK, are these– ! ! ! ! !. Themore of themthat follow a statement, themore you shouldignore it.


Andnever pass themon, as theyalways insist you should. Theirintent is to spreadfear, uncertainty and panic. Why certain individals have aneed for thissort of behavioris a mysterybest left topsychologists. They have alwaysbeen with usbut, again, theWeb has greatlyincreased their ability to spreadthe nonsense they getoff on.





Thelanguage and style ofthe message are relatedto its intent. If the languageis overheated, intemperate or otherwiseover the topyou can besure the individualwho composed and distributedit is likewise. These messages are designedto play uponour perfectly reasonable fears andare presented as actualexperiences, as in thisemail example from Australiain 2007 (Slightly edited for coherence on thepage):


I was approached yesterday afternoon around 3.30 PM in the Coles parking lot at Noranda by two males, asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. Then they asked if Id like to sample some fabulous Scent they were willing to Sell me at a very reasonable rate. I probably would have agreed had I not received an email some weeks ago, warning of this scam.
 The men continued to stand between parked cars, I guess to wait for someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going towards them, I pointed at them and told her about how I was sent an email at Work about someone walking up to you at the malls, in parking lots, and Asking you to sniff perfume that they are selling at a cheap price.
 THIS IS NOT PERFUMEIT IS ETHER! When you sniff it, youll pass out and theyll take Your wallet, your valuables, and heaven knows what else. If it were not for this email, I probably would have sniffed the perfume, but thanks to The generosity of an emailing friend, I was spared whatever might Have happened to me, and wanted to do the same for you. These guys hit Sydney and Melbourne 2 weeks ago and now they are doing it in Perth and Queensland.
 I called the police when I got back to my desk. Like the email says, LET EVERYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS, YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY, COWORKERS,whoever!!!!!
 Have the best day of your life!!!!!


Notice how this one begins calmly and with a matter-of-fact, reporting tone. This draws the reader in. But the gradually increasing tone of exclamation mark-assisted hysteria in this message is a reliable indicator of bullshit.





Accuratenames, numbers, dates and other‘factual’ data have alwaysbeen hard tocome by, whichis why theencyclopedia was invented. Tomes likeEncyclopedia Brittanica and the likehave largely done theway of thedinosaurs. Despite its virtues and crowdediting model, Wikipediais no substitutefor ancient but usuallyaccurate authorities and is susceptibleto special interests, ideologies and goodoldfashioned errors offact.


Infact, Wikipedia represents the best andthe worst ofthe Web. Itsstrengths are also itsweaknesses. Use it withdiscretion. Always check at leasttwo other sourcesof information before committingto information on Wikipedia, especially anything faintly statistical. Preferably find anoldstyle printsource, useful for facts upto around 2000. Thesewere written by expertsand exhaustively factcheckedbefore the internet made allinformation slippery.





Acommon way of validatinginformation is to haveheard it froma ‘friend’, a friendof a friend’or other apparentlytrustworthy source. We invest highcredibility in those weknow, often unwisely,as they areas susceptible to receivingand transmitting bullshit as anyoneelse.


Urbanmyths (or contemporarylegends) are spread byword of mouth,through the media (printand digital) and throughemail and socialmedia in general. Their validation is oftenthat the storyis true becauseI heard itfrom a friendof a friend’, or something similar. There are innumerableyarns of thistype in circulationand many havebeen for avery long time,providing them with theveneer of authenticity and ‘truth’. How often haveyou heard that antiVietnam War protesters spat onreturning veterans? Not only isthere no evidence of this ‘fact’,what information does existsuggests that nothing of thesort ever happenedor, even ifit did, wason a minisculescale.


Legendsof this typeoften provide apparent validation of theirclaims by referring to ahospital, police department, local government authority, etc. (Seethe kidney legendabove, which mentions the police). If you takethe trouble to check and youshould if you are concerned you’ll discoverthat these authoritieswill have no record of the allegedevent.





Noteven this article. The best defenceagainst obfuscation is a criticalview of everything. Don’t take anyone’s word for anythingwithout validating it for yourself. Even experts make mistakesand suffer fromunconscious biases. Always look for a range of sources and views.


In the end, we are all our own best bullshit detectors.