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Call to arms

Palin_bikiniEver see this photo?

It's a complete fabrication, courtesy of PhotoShop and the 2008 political campaigns.

Lots of people believed it because it confirmed everything they already thought about Gov. Palin. 

And know what? Many continued believing it even after fact-checking organizations definitively knocked it down.

Ironically, checking these "facts" has never been easier., which bills itself as "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation," has been in business since 1995.

In those days, the Internet was little more than an electronic bulletin board for people who communicated in Unix code. These days, Snopes attracts upwards of 300,000 visitors a day, many seeking confirmation or denial of some forwarded email they received.

In fact, the market for checking the veracity of Internet rumors and (mis)information has grown so steeply that Snopes has been joined by a band of fellow truth arbitrators such as FactCheck, sponsored by the Annenburg Public Policy Center, and PolitiFact, a service of the St. Petersburg Times. Not to mention regular newspaper columns such as "The Straight Dope" in the Chicago Reader and "The Fact Checker" in the Washington Post.

Indeed, these truth mongers have been known to check up on each other from time to time. FactCheck, for example, reviewed a sample of Snopes' responses to political rumors regarding George W. BushSarah Palin and Barack Obama, and found them to be free from bias in all cases. 

Anyone capable of forwarding an email can check the veracity of almost any supposed "fact" within seconds. So you would think no one would have an excuse for forwarding a pants-on-fire whopper. 

And yet they fill my email inbox.

Last week, for example, I received an email that had been forwarded at least six times. Not surprising, since it was originally written in 2009.

The gist was that the Obama administration spent $3 billion on the Cash for Clunkers program only to save $350 million. A professor at the University of West Virginia supposedly did the analysis.

It took me about two seconds to type "cash for clunkers, university of West Virginia" into Google, and five seconds to scan the results. (I could have been faster, but I had to wade through a long list of web sites like Freedom Watch and The Conservative Corner, all reprinting the original email.) As it turns out, the "Hillbilly Report" (a self-professed "rural progressive site") sent me directly to Snopes.

Snopes declared the email "mostly false." It had several flaws. Starting with a relatively accurate estimate of the cost for the Cash for Clunkers program, it then went wildly awry with basic math errors, a fundamental misunderstanding of gasoline refining, and a miscalculation of the program's multi-year impact.  

By Snopes' estimate -- without taking into account the rising cost of oil or the impact on new auto sales -- the program basically paid for itself in four years. Not spectacular, but probably not worthy of the breathless email it produced. You can read the original email and the Snopes analysis here.

I try to knock down these emails whenever they infect my inbox, sending whoever forwarded it to me a polite correction, with a link to whatever fact-checking organization I used. 

What I usually get in response is (a) nothing, (b) a non-sequitur such as "well Obama was born in Kenya," or lately (c) "my friends tell me Snopes is run by a bunch of lefties."  

Send enough rebuttals, and you're taken off their mailing list for forwards.

What gives?

I've come to the conclusion that these emails have nothing to do with sharing information. They're all about reafirming personal identity. Kind of like carrying a Goyard bag or wearing a Rolex watch.

People who send these emails pay as much attention to their accuracy or veracity as Goyard-toting fashionistas do to the stitching on their handbag. 

Attack the facts in the email and you're attacking them. In response, they do what anyone under attack would do -- they dig in their heels and counterpunch. In fact, there's plenty of research suggesting that corrections result in the reinforcement of misinformation and false beliefs.

The end result is a climate of partisanship that has become even more threatening than global warming.

So this is a call to arms.

Let's promise that we won't forward any email that we haven't personally vetted, even if it seems to confirn our most cherished beliefs. 



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