March 2008

On-line rumors are more than bad 'Netiquette'

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Relentless advertising, absurd “analysis,” and an exceptionally loud noise machine — yup, it’s election season. We can expect one thing: it will get worse before it gets better.

This is what happens when there is a 24/7 news cycle. Since there’s a shortage of real news, the media fill time with such irrelevancies as Hillary Clinton’s warmand- fuzzy quotient, interspersed with clips of Britney Spears being hauled to the hospital.

But the biggest threat to sanity this election season is not the TV, which must at least take a wild stab at accuracy. No, the biggest threat is the Internet, or more specifically, the willful misuse of it.

In “The Assault on Reason,” Al Gore called the Internet “a formidable new medium of communication and a source of great hope for the future vitality of democracy.” This is true, but only if the people using the Internet employ common sense and skepticism when evaluating claims. (Like Gore’s supposed claim that he “invented the Internet,” when that’s not what he said. See snopes.com/quotes/internet. asp)

Though I agree the Internet is revolutionary and capable of breaking the media stranglehold on information (for good or ill), and is democratizing in that it allows two-way participation, I don’t believe for one second that most people are exploiting it to the advantage of democracy.

Rather, my inbox demonstrates the worst of human nature — our tendency to believe damn near anything, no matter how ludicrous and no matter how often its falseness is pointed out. It also proves few people bother to evaluate a given claim in the first place — despite having the information superhighway at their fingertips.

Example One:

The e-mail “Who is Barack Obama? (no joke),” which among other absurdities posits he was trained to be a radical Muslim, then actually invites you to “check it out on snopes.com for yourself.” Well, I did, and guess what? That’s right — it’s a lie.

Or, as the good folks at snopes put it: “One version in circulation claims, ‘We were told this was checked out on snopes.com. It is factual. Check for yourself’ and includes a link to this website. It's our guess that whoever included that bit was counting on folks NOT to check, as our article says the opposite: that the polemic is not factual, but rather is false.” I have received this email twice from the same person.

The fact that I can delete it does not address the issue, which is that this sort of stuff (1) exists and (2) is spread by actual human beings.

Largely false is Example Two: An email claiming Barack’s Trinity Church of Christ has a “non-negotiable commitment to Africa,” and which additionally claims Obama harbors a secret desire to “rule” America. Also, he is really a covert Muslim.

Then there’s Example Three, an email claiming that because Obama didn’t put his hand over his heart during a rendition of the national anthem, he is not a “real American.” It’s true Obama didn’t have his hand over his heart at the time. It’s also true there’s no law that can compel anyone to do so, and that unless it’s the finger or a thumbs-up, a single gesture proves very little about actual sentiment. If this is the best his detractors can do, he should be OK.

Obama does not thrill me, and I distrust his glibness. But that’s beside the point. Why do people seem so fixated on — and hysterical about — Obama? Is it just the political season?

I did some checking of my own. I tried to see (using only snopes, so there are limits) how many urban legends are circulating about other presidential candidates.

Mike Huckabee racked up two references. One listing is about his son’s (not his) animal cruelty and the other, about a civics lesson a teacher in his state gave her students. Both stories are true, snopes says.

Rudy Giuliani: One reference, concerning how Time magazine named him Person of the Year in 2005.

Romney: One reference. Someone inserted him and his wife into a popular myth about a bride telling off her groom mid-ceremony for sleeping with her maid of honor.

John McCain: Seven listings. One is positive or neutral; five simply mention or quote him and the other, partly true, mentions him concerning a vote on amnesty for illegals.

Fred Thompson is referred to in a listing about the Dixie Chicks, while Ron Paul is quoted in another listing concerning a bill (allegedly) dealing with illegals and Social Security benefits.

Obama gets nine listings, all of which contain information that is negative, and most of which are c o m p l e t e l y untrue. Hillary Clinton leads the pack with 38 references, though not all of them are specifically about her. Some are neutral. Most are negative. John Edwards has seven; most are related to John Kerry. Dennis Kucinich gets one — and it’s not about UFOs.

On snopes there are more urban legends circulating about Democrats than Republicans. The bulk of those are untrue and markedly vicious. Yet they continue to be circulated. Meanwhile, those Republicans who actually are controversial — like 9/11 grandstander extraordinaire Giuliani — have barely anything. It’s not due to lack of material. It’s not because snopes is biased. It’s not because Democrats are above this kind of silliness — a Clinton volunteer admitted to forwarding one of the Obama e-mails. (She quit, but apparently claims she just wanted to alert others to the e-mail’s existence).

It’s because it’s easier than thinking, because it’s come to this: We’re so lazy that we can’t even bother to google a claim (or even “check it out on snopes” when explicitly invited to do so), but instead press the “forward” button without blinking. God help us.

In addition to its advantages, the Internet has made the rumor mill hightech. I’m not in favor of policing content, but it’s obvious this kind of irresponsibility corrodes rather than serves democracy. And people will still believe what they want.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.