Over the years I have received many “urgent” email notices: “Microsoft was going to send everyone a big check,” “a girl was dying, but if I send five dollars she can be saved,” “mice are urinating on soft drink cans,” and any number chain letters of virus hoaxes and bogus stories of ignored heroism and patriotism based on some official’s malfeasance of which I should be aware. Oh, and I am supposed forward the message to some number of recipients.
Most of these messages were forwarded by well-meaning friends that were convinced that the information was critical, urgent and (must be) valid. “Critical and urgent” were obvious based on the wording of the message. What was not apparent was the validity of the message.
Early in this process I discovered several hoax-revealing programs like Snopes.com and UrbanLegends.com—to name only two of many.
Consequently, I became something of a pain-in-the-ass because the first thing I did was fact-check these messages. Typically, I would use two different fact-checking sites. I wanted to know if the information was correct (sometimes it was).
If the information was identified as a hoax, or otherwise not accurate, I would send a note back to the original sender—trying to be polite—with a link to the information about why the statement probably was not accurate (and thereby indicating I would not forward it to anyone). Sometimes I got a “thank you,” and maybe even an apology; sometimes the response was less cordial.
One feature common to many of these email messages was/is a statement that if I am “truly a patriot,” “love the United States,” “have a soul,” etc., I will immediately forward the message to everyone in my email address book. Here is the problem with this:
1. If I found out that the message was a hoax or urban legend, then the sender could have done that too. Also, I am being set up to propagate false information down the email chain.
2. When I read something like this, I almost immediately know with whom I want to share the information if I can verify it. I do not have to be—and do not want to be—TOLD—to share it.
I may be overreacting here, but I find these instructions offensive. I am intelligent enough to know if something is share-worthy or not. (Most of these messages are pre-formatted, and my sender was not personally responsible for the request, but it still bugged me.)
Early in this “blog journey” I wrote a piece titled “An Open Message to Political Conservatives (and Liberals, too),” the point of which was that I expected (well at least I wanted) political candidates, political reporters, news reporters (and everyone else) to be truthful and not misleading in an effort to promote or discredit political candidates. (I know, I should believe in fairy dust, too!)
But the fact is, in this hyped-up information age, the truth is always out there somewhere, and it is likely to come back and bite anyone who tries to distort or contradict (or even “spin”) information—just ask Brian Williams (NBC newsman).
There are at least three important consequences of even casually “stretching the truth.”
1. People take action, form opinions, and/or make decisions based on information they trust. If the information is not valid , i.e., misinformation, these people will make decisions based on the bad information (e.g., decisions about whom to vote for and why). (Of course, this is the objective for the perpetrator of misinformation. But we do not have redistribute this misinformation.)
2. The moment the untruth is revealed, the intent and veracity of everything else that individual does or says is immediately suspect. Credibility is damaged if not totally lost. Such lack of credibility can follow an individual well “beyond the grave.”
3. And, most importantly, using a story purported to be the truth that is not, even to support of a noble and just “cause,” can actually undermine and damage the “cause.”
And that is my View from Pelham.
*Note to Reader: This essay category is “The View from Pelham.” It would be more appropriate to categorize it as “My Soapbox!”
I get out my soapbox and rant about hoaxes and urban legends “directing” me to “Forward the Message to 25 People.” Also, the consequences of “stretching the truth” and misinformation.