It was an outrageous story that most of us saw — and many shared — on social media a few weeks ago: A woman named Kelly Mullins claimed that she visited a KFC restaurant with her granddaughter Victoria, who had been badly injured in a dog attack, and the pair were asked to leave because the girl’s scarred face disgusted other diners.

The story was first reported in the Laurel Leader-Call, which noted:

“The story began going viral on June 12 when ‘Victoria’s Victories’ (Facebook) page posted: ‘Does this face look scary to you? Last week at KFC in Jackson MS this precious face was asked to leave because her face scared the other diners. I personally will never step foot in another KFC again and will be personally writing the CEO.”
 After it went viral, employees and managers at both Jackson locations have faced death threats, have had drinks thrown at them through the drive-thru window and have faced constant verbal harassment.”

The story spread, boycotts were proposed, and sympathetic citizens made their outrage known. But soon doubts were raised about the claim.

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The family changed their story, giving two different accounts of where the incident took place. Surveillance video from both franchise locations was obtained, and after hours of review neither Mullins nor her injured granddaughter could be seen anywhere.

Furthermore a review of the transactions at both locations failed to uncover an order matching what Mullins claimed they ate. In fact there’s no evidence that the little girl and her grandmother visited any KFC on the day in question, much less were asked to leave one because of a disfigurement.

Rick Maynard, a spokesman for KFC, issued a recent statement that read in part:

“Like the rest of America, the KFC family has been moved by the story of Victoria’s injuries and recovery. After the alleged incident was reported to us, two investigations took place, including one by an independent investigator. Neither revealed any evidence that the incident occurred and we consider the investigation closed.”

The oft-reliable mythbusting web site deems the story “probably false” and notes that the “Victoria’s Victories” Facebook page has been deleted.

What was the motivation for this hoax? One obvious answer is money, since the family set up an online fundraiser which surged past $130,000 after the grandmother’s claim went viral. But it is also possible that the original post was merely a little white lie intended to generate attention and sympathy.

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That was apparently the case last year when Dayna Morales, a New Jersey waitress, made national news claiming she was left a hate-filled, anti-gay note instead of a tip. Morales posted a copy of a receipt on Facebook that read, “I’m sorry but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle and how you live your life.”

The post went viral on social media, shared and Tweeted by well-meaning supporters for social justice. But questions soon arose about her claims after the family she accused of mistreating her showed their original receipt for the same transaction that included a tip. An investigation by her employer concluded that she made up the story, and she was eventually fired.

Sparking the Social Justice Witch Hunt

The pattern is not difficult to recognize: people taking their grievances to social media instead of through proper channels in order to harm others’ reputations using hordes of ill-informed social-justice bloggers. In decades past if you were upset with the actions of some person or company, there were clear guidelines for how to handle the situation. If it were a personal dispute it might involve speaking to a manager, contacting a homeowner’s association, a small claims civil lawsuit or even fisticuffs. If still unresolved, an aggrieved party might contact the local newspaper or television station and ask them to help seek justice.

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If it’s a criminal issue, of course, the procedures are even clearer: Call the police and let them sort it out. If the police find probable cause to determine a crime was committed, someone will be arrested and it then becomes a matter for the courts.

But in these cases the complaint wasn’t a crime — leaving a homophobic note instead of a tip is rude and hurtful but not illegal, as is asking a scarred restaurant customer to leave — but instead a violation of social norms or morals. This is key to understanding why people take up these causes with such passion. These days mob justice doesn’t need to happen in the streets. It can happen online, and much more easily.

With the emergence of social media in recent years people with both real and imagined complaints have found a new forum to garner attention, sympathy and money from complete strangers. Why fill out a complaint form or wait for a return phone call when you can instantly tell your side of the story on Facebook or Twitter and get immediate reaction? The reaction could mean hundreds or thousands of people are outraged on your behalf, contacting the company’s home office and threatening a boycott unless this grave injustice is immediately remedied and an apology offered.

Of course this is terribly unfair to the accused company, which may know little or nothing about the incident until the angry calls and emails pour in, requiring days or  weeks to do an investigation of the claim to find out whether it’s completely true, completely false or somewhere in between (perhaps there was a misunderstanding or miscommunication).

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As each day passes the publicity gets worse and worse, and even when the company is finally cleared of any wrongdoing, its name has been dragged through the mud. Unfortunately for KFC, their brand has become associated with the cruel mistreatment of an innocent girl, and it may take years for that to go away.

KFC Rumors and Urban Legends

This isn’t the first time  the fried chicken chain has been the target of false and malicious rumors. As Jan Harold Brunvand notes in his “Encyclopedia of Urban Legends,” the story of the Kentucky Fried Rat “is one of the best-known food contamination stories, being circulated since the early 1970s. It describes how a customer of a national fried-chicken franchise allegedly found a batter-fried rat in a bucket of chicken. Usually, the victim has eaten some of the rat before noticing the rodent’s tail and realizing the meat is not chicken.”

In some versions of the story the rat was added to the chicken by a malicious employee. In other versions, rat meat was added to the chicken as a cost-saving measure by a penny-pinching manager.

The “Kentucky Fried Rat” urban legend has more in common with this incident than might appear at first blush.

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As Brunvand notes, a “predominant theme that folklorist Gary Alan Fine finds in the chicken/rat legends is that ‘the fast food establishments are settings of employee sabotage and corporate greed.’” In other words, the fried rat story is superficially believable for the same reason that the scarred-child-asked-to-leave story was believable: Both depict cruel fast-food employees and a corporate indifference to the health and dignity of its customers driven by profit and greed.

What could be more heartless and greedy than demanding that an injured, innocent child leave so that other customers will stay and spend more money?

This incident is tragic all around: for the fast-food franchise that was publicly and falsely accused of  mistreating an injured child (yet donated $30,000 for her care, hoax or not); for the thousands of people who helped spread Kelly Mullins’s cruel hoax, expressing outrage and threatening innocent people over something that never happened; and mostly for little Victoria, who will grow up under the cloud of being the subject of her grandmother’s hoax for years to come.

There are no winners in this case, and it serves as a reminder to be skeptical about unconfirmed — and especially heart-tugging — stories on social media. It could be real, or it could be a rumor. If it’s the latter, you may be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.