Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Lies, Gossip & the Internet

About once every couple of months or so I get a email that purports to be a true story about some shocking, unfair or disturbing event that I have heard nothing about previously through the various media channels I monitor. While I'm not an obsessed news junkie (please keep your opinions and snickering in check for a moment), I do like to think I'm reasonably well informed across a range of topics and a bit too informed on a few I really enjoy. Still I receive these "e-rumors" with enough regularity that I feel I must respond. It is interesting to note that although most of my friends and contacts are "Christian", and these messages come from many of them, few of them have considered what impact on their witness is caused when they forward an untrue story to their email list.

I am including the text of my latest e-mail response to one of these "e-rumors" below in the hope that the two or three of you who read this blog might take this cause to heart and at least consider doing what I do in response to receiving such a message.

Dear Friends,

As much as I enjoy getting messages from you, I really only have time for ones of truth and value (humour is good, too). The story attached to the original email I received about the removal of studies related to the Jewish Holocaust in WWII at the University of Kentucky is a hoax. Please follow the link I am providing to see the article regarding this posted at Truth or Fiction.com.


While I encourage people of good conscience to be informed and to oppose (and seek support for opposing) evil and wrong things, I believe we all would agree that there is no benefit in 'tilting at windmills'. Here are some helpful guidelines I use to help me weed out the truth from lies.

1. Be suspicious of any story that does not include a verifiable citation. If the story claims to be from a particular media outlet but has no live link to the original included, then go to - or contact - the claimed media outlet to get verification. The more information included with an article forwarded to you the better the likelihood it is a true story. Live links to real websites are best, but having the information as to the media source, date the article appeared and an author byline included are also good signs of reliability - but the most important thing you can do is confirm the story yourself. If you do not confirm the story and forward it anyway, you are vouching for its authenticity. Be careful lest you attach your name to a lie. From a moral perspective doing so is to engage in gossip.

2. Be suspicious of any very scandalous, shocking or outrageous story that you have heard nothing about through regular media channels - unless you never follow news, which is an issue all of of its own. It is unlikely in the extreme that the media would 'miss' or even suppress a story that would cause a strong reaction in you (and certainly a large number of other people) because of the obvious benefits they would gain by reporting it. If you believe the majority of western media is controlled to the extent that serious and disturbing stories are routinely being deliberately not reported then I'm afraid you are not going to follow my suggestions, regardless. I do believe in media 'bias' but that's not the same thing as willful suppression. The best defense in regard to media bias is a good offense. Set yourself up with a variety of media sources so you can sample what is being reported from a wide range of perspectives. I also suggest adding a site like http://www.maisonneuve.org/ which offers an alternative to traditional established Canadian media while interacting with what those media outlets report. Another good perspective is available from http://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=178 which offers a decidedly Christian perspective on Canadian news, albeit from a somewhat narrower viewpoint.

3. Put the link for Truth or Fiction.com in your browser's favourites so it is just a click away. If you cannot verify an email news story that has been sent to you, just check it out at this website. In the case of the message that prompted this response, I simply searched the word "holocaust" at the Truth or Fiction.com website and the story about this hoax was the first item it found. I have used Truth of Fiction.com for almost 10 years now and I have yet to be unable to verify or debunk an email message I have received.

4. When you get an email hoax do what I did. Respond to the sender(s) with this information. I have also been trying to spread the word about internet and email hoaxes for 10 years and I still have to do this about two or three times a year. It would be VERY helpful if we could harness the same power of the World Wide Web that brings these annoying untruths into our lives to spread the word about how to deal with them properly. At the very least you can teach your children how to deal with these messages properly. That would be, in my opinion, your minimum responsibility.

Thanks for reading this (if you did). Thanks even more if you take some steps because of the message.