Friday, May 23, 2014

Malicious e-rumors damage our political culture

     The primary elections just finished were full of campaign materials packed with opposition research, innuendo and lies that were cranked out across the country. The materials were launched into a pool of voters who had already been polluted by a new scourge called e-rumors. It’s a scourge that could be healed by an application of good sense and skepticism as we move to the 2014 mid-term elections.

     Myths and rumors have always existed. As people have crowded into cities and become more and more packed together, and at the same time more anonymous, it’s become easy for urban myths to take hold.

     The Internet has added a nasty efficiency to this phenomenon. Often, rumors gain traction because they have a political element. Or, they disguise an underlying bigotry. Such is the case with claim that the wording used by the soldier who presents a flag to relatives of the deceased in a military funeral has been changed.

      Traditionally, that presentation includes, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation …  .” The e-rumor is that the phrase “President of the United States” has recently been replaced with “Secretary of Defense” and that a soldier actually making a presentation was both ordered to make the change and embarrassed by it.

     The story is completely false. There is no such change. There never was. This malicious rumor, however, has been making the rounds on the Internet for several years. When it appears, it gets forwarded from one online user to the next, gaining speed as the shock of the supposed change drives readers to hit the “forward” button. Gradually, the forwarding and the furor die down, only to pop up again.

     This particular e-rumor doesn’t make much of a dent on the reputation of the president, although that might be the malicious motive of the person or persons who started it. The subject is not something that threatens economic havoc or national security. However, the story has the capacity to upset the families of those facing a military funeral. Amazingly, it can impact those who have just witnessed one, leaving them to think that maybe they were just lucky to have heard the more traditional version, but that surely others will suffer this implied insult.

     There isn’t really much hope of eliminating this kind of rumor. After all, admonitions against gossip and rumor mongering are as old as the commandments in the Bible: “Thou shall not bear false witness.” But there are ways that individuals can minimize the damage that baseless rumors can cause.

     Instead of assuming that every forwarded e-mail, scurrilous anecdote and unresearched or unattributed claim on the Internet is true, it’s a good idea to don an armor of skepticism and to adopt the attitude that if it sounds too horrific to be true, it probably isn’t.

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