The misinformation superhighway seems to be traveling at warp speed this year. Several months ago I wrote a column called “Please don’t send anything to everyone you know” about the internet screeds that the wingnuts of the world forward to everyone in their address book without passing them through even the most rudimentary filter of credibility.
Ironically, two days after that column appeared, our county’s major daily printed a Letter to the Editor that had alarm bells going off in my head, and those of a host of other readers as well. Normally these things take about four seconds to track down on snopes.com, but this one took almost thirty. It appears that as part of its budget cuts, the county rag has done away with fact checkers, a point that was made in a second Letter to the Editor by a reader who documented that not a single “fact” in the first letter writer’s missive was even remotely true. But the paper had already given legitimacy and credibility to an ugly urban legend.
As the oft-quoted saying goes, We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Why did so many people miss that memo?
What baffles me is that urban legends, mythical stories, and general folklore are so astonishingly easy to spot if the brain is switched on at even Energy Saving levels. These stories are more formulaic than romance novels: Start out with a much distorted statement, pad with patent delusions, cite bogus page numbers and dates, misquote a prominent citizen to give it credence, and send to one’s entire distribution list with the subject line in all caps. Voila!
Last week, for example, I received an internet communication from an otherwise intelligent well-educated La Jollan that had been sent to, apparently, everyone he knew; the previous distribution lists were stacked up below it, none of which had fewer than eighty names on them. The topic – a current favorite in the world of internet hysteria – was Obamacare, and more specifically, the Ethics Panels (a.k.a Death Squads) that Obama has allegedly created to alleviate the country’s burden of that cumbersome group, old people.
Of course, the first thing that made me the taddiest bit suspicious was that the originator was illiterate. “You may not be there yet, but what comes next [sic] our children? If your [sic] are handy capped [oy sic]? This effects [sic] everyone we know.”
OK, so not everyone has access to them new fangled spell checkers. The article goes on to quote a woman doctor in Tennessee (I’m guessing by now she’s moved to an unlisted country and changed professions) noting that she is a “real person” and giving a link to her medical group’s on-line listing. As with most such internet info-mationals, a whole lot of material having nothing to do with anything she actually said is then inserted, including the telltale internet idiocy nebulous statement: “If you needed a lifesaving operation, Medicare will not provide coverage anymore after 2013 if you are 75 or over.”
Another popular Obamacare rant I’ve received from several curiously uninquisitive towns folk this year maintains that Obamacare will require the microchipping of all Americans with their medical and bank information and even a tracking device by March 23, 2013. (Alarm bell #1: Like the federal government could ever be that efficient? Alarm bells 2-50 to follow.)
So here’s Inga’s short guide on how to recognize internet – or Letter to the Editor - insanity:
(1) Did the writer finish third grade?
(2) If the bells going off in your head sound like klaxons, maybe it’s not true.
(3) If there is even a single phrase in capital letters accompanied by more than one exclamation mark (“TOGETHER WE CAN STOP THIS!!!!!!”), YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED!!!!!
(4) Does the sender sent it to 150 people of his or her closest friends?
(5) The only thing a photo proves is that the sender has Photoshop. For example, a heavily circulated photo shows Romney standing in front of an American flag with five children whose T-shirts spell out the word “Money”. It was actually a digitally altered Associated Press photo; the kids’ shirts actually spelled Romney with the “R” being the Romney campaign logo and the letters “o” and “m” on the kids’ shirts reversed.
(6) Just because a “real” person is quoted doesn’t mean they actually said anything attributed to them. Check it out yourself on snopes.com. (Yes, YOU.)
(7) While celebrities – and particularly politicians - say all manner of ill-considered things, consider the source. The text of a hilariously clueless speech by Romney that has made the rounds quotes him as saying that he could relate to black people because his ancestors once owned slaves. (They didn’t.) The “speech” was from a spoof article on the satirical web site FreeWoodPost.com, which, incidentally, proclaims prominently that it is a satirical web site and they are just funning you. (Another recent post: “Romney to supporters at rally: ‘Everyone here gets a car!’”)
(1) C’mon, really?
(2) “Are you SURE some yahoo didn’t send you this?
(3) “Do you want people to think you’re a yahoo too?”
Of course, it won’t help. But I’ve done my best.