The Edmond Sun

Opinion

April 28, 2010

Chain e-mail ... like that’s a bad thing

TERRA HAUTE, Ind. — “When you’re looking at truth versus gossip, truth doesn’t stand a chance.” — David Mikkelson, cofounder, Snopes.com.

After the third or fourth time around, you recognize them by their subject line.

Oh, yeah, that’s the one about “Queen Nancy” Pelosi’s jet plane power grab. And that’s the one about Jane Fonda being honored at the White House by President Obama. There’s the one about Target refusing to fund charities for military vets because the discounter is “a French company.”

And who can forget the one with the color photos of the cushy jail “in Cook County, Ill.” that was built compliments of, again, Barack Obama?

They’re chain e-mails, but I think of them as “e-outrages” because the sender usually is furious with someone or at something and demands a cyber pushback from all recipients in the chain.

If I had a dollar for every time I have politely responded to an e-outrage with debunking counter-information and the advice to “check this out on Snopes.com or some other fact-checking site,” I would have enough money to get all the broken things fixed on my 13-year-old car.

If I had a dollar for every time I have then received a “Thank you so much, I did check Snopes and I’m sending the correction to all 378 people on my original mailing list,” I would have enough to buy, well, one of those air fresheners that dangle from the rear-view mirror.

Instead, the usual response is either an e-mailer ignoring the new information or, worse, immense silence. I picture those 378 other e-addressees still in the dark and passing along howlingly wrong “facts” meant to outrage hundreds more people.

Take the Jane Fonda thing. Is she being honored “soon” by President Obama? Not hardly.

Snopes first checked into this e-outrage years ago, when the message began to make the rounds. The rumor dates to 1999. ABC’s Barbara Walters included Fonda on a list of 100 great women of the century. A presidential honor was never part of the deal. It hasn’t been in the ensuing 11 years, including now.

No matter. This old e-outrage rolls on, recently dropping (again) into my inbox. When I summarized the Snopes debunking for the sender, emphasizing there is zero connection to Obama, I received only a well-she’s-still-a-traitor response.

Pure silence followed my reply about the fancy Cook County jail photos that really are pictures of a prison in Austria. Same for Target supporting lots of military causes and being headquartered, always, in Minneapolis.

As rancorous as these times are, it’s still amazing how no amount of evidence or counter-info can move some folks from their allegiance to e-rumors they’ve picked up, embraced, then passed along. A recent New York Times profile of David and Barbara Mikkelson highlights this phenomenon.

The Mikkelsons, who live in southern California, started Snopes.com in the mid-1990s. Although they have been accused — in a 2009 e-outrage — of all manner of secrecy and political persuasion, extensive checking by unrelated sites, such as FactCheck.org, reveal the couple to be readily identifiable, reachable and, from all verifiable appearances, barely political, let alone partisan.

Barbara is a Canadian citizen and cannot vote in the United States. David registered as a Republican in 2000 and as “undeclared” thereafter. He told FactCheck.org that he has never joined a political party, worked for a campaign or given money to a candidate, statements supported by accessible public information.

The Mikkelsons are, however, research and folklore nuts, which is how Snopes began. David loved tracking down the origins of popular stories and posting them for the curious. Barbara is a digger who, as FactCheck.org recounted, spends considerable time researching such e-rumors as whether lipstick carries pernicious amounts of lead. After 9/11, however, info demand catapulted Snopes into an international sphere that encompasses multiple Internet oddities, rip-off schemes, urban legends and politics.

Today, according to the Times article, the site receives 7 million to 8 million hits each month and makes enough from ads to pay for its monthly bandwidth, two full-time employees and the Mikkelsons’ salaries. Each story posted on Snopes.com carries links for additional information and reader verification of sources.

None of which is likely to dissuade the many recipients of last year’s “Snopes Exposed” e-outrage from thinking the worst (see the debunking of that at factcheck.org/2009/04/snopescom). The Mikkelsons are accustomed to this. David told the Times’ Brian Stelter: “Especially in politics, most everything has shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false. In the larger sense of it, people want confirmation of their world view.”

Barbara’s theory, developed over the years: “Rumors are a great source of comfort for people.”

And for some people, the need to wrap up tight in the comfort outweighs the reality of a tattered and torn factual tapestry.

Often, the Mikkelsons find truth in e-outrages, and they duly note them. For example, two frequent flyers that have landed in my e-box this year lambaste the news media for choosing to publish “garbage” instead of a couple of patriotic stories. The most recent was about a Medal of Honor award and the moving funeral “last week” for a Navy Seal killed in Iraq. Before that, it was a story about a sculpture made of melted Saddam Hussein statue heads by an Iraqi man in gratitude for “the Americans’ liberation of his country.”

As Snopes discovered, the medal and funeral did happen, but the Navy Seal was killed and buried in 2006, not last week, and the medal was awarded in 2008. The sculpture, now at Fort Hood, Texas, was, indeed, made by an Iraqi artist back in 2004, but it wasn’t out of gratitude: The man publicly criticized U.S. occupation of his country and the U.S. Army paid him for his work. Also, the statue story ran in a Dallas newspaper in March 2004 and other news outlets picked it up.

Space prohibits unraveling the e-outrage over the Speaker of the House’s air travel, but you can read the results of the Mikkelsons’ research by typing “Nancy Pelosi’s Jet” into the search window at Snopes.com.

Unless, of course, you like the story just as you first saw it — nice and simple and wrong.

STEPHANIE SALTER writes for The Tribune Star in Terre Haute, Ind. She can be reached at stephanie.salter@tribstar.com. CNHI News Service distributes her column.

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