This essay ran on the Chicago Tribune op-ed page on 2008-07-07.
Bogus "news" has forced Barack Obama to build a website to refute smears, but he is not alone in his war against disinformation. We have all been drafted.
In the past year email hoaxes have forced me to tell two dear friends that I never want to hear from them again. Both seem compelled to send sham news to me and everyone else they know. Although they do not own mainstream broadcast networks, they are broadcasters, a fact they do not seem understand, and their emails contain a form of computer virus that, instead of destroying files, destroys the truth.
Bernie is a Florida Rabbi, a liberal, and a Zionist. He presided over my Bar Mitzvah and he is is my Reverend Wright. Alex owns a restaurant in Pennsylvania and he is a Rush Limbaugh conservative. He once invested in a magazine I started. He is my Tony Rezko.
Bernie transmits perfidy about anyone who has ever bowed to Mecca. Alex blazons breathless bile that Hillary Clinton helped free some Black Panthers who tortured and murdered a man. From Bernie came loopy revelations about how the University of Kentucky has banned mention of the Holocaust. Alex relays venomous reports that Cindy Sheehan's slain soldier son was really raised by her ex-husband. And much much more.
Although these emails smelled like dead alewives as soon as I opened them, I looked them up at Snopes.com, the highly reliable source for debunking the legions of urban legends forwarded and forwarded and forwarded. Then I sent Bernie and Alex links to the facts.
I have a pretty good idea of who originates these anonymous frauds and why, but I cannot understand how accomplished men like Bernie and Alex could be duped by such pseudo news. If it's so easy for my BS meter to recognize that these dispatches from the affront are deceptive, why can't they? Don't they understand that they look like dupes when they send chain letters to people who have working BS meters? Or worse still, dopes? I explained this but they continued to clog my inbox with idiocy.
I do not understand what motivates Bernie and Alex. Why do they feel obliged to smear electronic fecal matter across the computers of all their friends? Perhaps they see themselves as internet Paul Reveres, riding the electronic cobblestones on their white horses alerting the sleeping masses that the enemy is coming. Alas, they are nothing more than rumor mongers.
But more troubling is their refusal to erase their graffiti. They never send out a correction. This, more than anything else, has led me to conclude that they are just plain malicious. And that is what caused me to estrange them.
We all vilified Dan Rather for being duped by a hoax that got him fired and decried "the irresponsible media". But who are the irresponsible media in the internet age? Look in the mirror if you forward emails. As new age media, we have a responsibility to accuracy just like professional reporters.
What does that mean?
Anything sent to you that says "forward this" should never be forwarded. It is spam.
Anything that says "this is not a hoax" probably is.
If it doesn't have a date and it says it happened "a few weeks ago" or "recently", it never happened.
In all cases, go to Snopes.com and check out the veracity of a forward before you forward it again. When you uncover the facts, tell the wannabe anchormen and everyone else to whom they broadcast it. And if they don't get the message, as much as it hurts, tell them to remove your name from their address books.
Please send this to everyone you know.
P.S. - As soon as this ran in the Trib, someone sent me this link. I guess I am not alone.