September 16th, 2008

Read This Before Clicking FORWARD on that Email!

A recent article from the BBC News stated: “The internet needs a way to help people separate rumour from real science…” I have a strong doubt we will ever achieve an ideal, factual Internet, so in the meantime we’ll need to continue to use critical thought and evaluative skills to ensure the information we come across on the Internet and through forwarded emails is accurate.

Because the Internet allows anyone with a computer to create content and spread information, it would be difficult if not impossible to regulate it to separate fact from fiction. In this post I recommend some nonpartisan resources that will help you separate fact from fiction this election year.

Because this is a presidential election year, you’re probably finding your email inbox inundated with forwarded emails from concerned friends and relatives regarding the political candidates. A report from factcheck.org cites multiple instances of popular email forwards being mostly or totally bogus. While this certainly applies to the political candidates, there are multiple examples of rumors spread just by forwarding an email without first checking the facts.

Did you hear the one about the U.K. (University of Kentucky depending on the version) cutting the Holocaust out of their curriculum due to it being offensive to Muslims? Bogus! The report from factcheck.org says, “A simple Google search reveals the falsity of the rumor, yet the e-mail continues to be passed along by the overly credulous.”

Or how about the one that claims to be an essay by Jay Leno, and more recent versions cite David Letterman, urging people to focus on the positive. Bogus! It was actually written by columnist Craig R. Smith for WorldNetDaily in 2006. But the originator of the false email probably knew people were less likely to pass on something written by Mr. Smith, so they attributed a celebrity as author. It worked! It’s still in circulation today and will be until people stop forwarding false information.

Similar to the Jay Leno example is the widely circulated “commentary” by Andy Rooney. Andy Rooney has stated multiple times that it was not his work, but yet the email lives due to careless email forwarding.

But also take those campaign ads on television with a grain (or shaker full) of salt. Political campaigns are notorious for distorting facts. For example a recent McCain ad claiming Obama wants to teach “comprehensive sex education” to kindergarteners was debunked by the facts, showing how they had been distorted. FactCheck.

On the other side an Obama ad distorted information to paint a more negative picture of McCain’s education voting record. FactCheck.

So how do you protect yourself from passing on misinformation? And more importantly, how do you protect yourself from believing bad information? Arm yourself with some resources from nonpartisan organizations who do the fact checking for you:

FactCheck.org created a special wire for the election season, which they claim is “Faster than the speed of Spin.” Check it out: FactCheck Wire.

Remember, the type of resource matters. Below are the most common sources people use for political information that will require various levels of skepticism and fact checking:

  • Newspapers and popular magazines include articles that are quickly fact checked, but due to quick deadlines can include inaccuracies. Newspapers have a reputation to uphold, so they have more incentive to report the facts, but no media is perfect.
  • Television ads are required to include an approval statement by the candidate, however there is no fact checking done by the network running the ad. Political campaigns distort facts because they know that most people will believe the ad and not take the time to check if what it claimed is true.
  • Blogs are opinion pieces not reviewed by editors or fact checkers. Anyone can start a blog and there’s no rule requiring accurate information.
  • Forwarded Emails are usually distortions of facts including false information. Ask yourself why you’re finding out the information from an email as opposed to the News – it’s not because someone knows something the media is ignoring, but because the media has probably already investigated it and found the claim false.

-Sommer

Comments

Comment from Tam Sretep
Time September 25, 2008 at 10:49 am

Very informative and useful blog post! I wish more people would use ALL the information that the internet provides and not just the information that promotes their agenda.

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