ALLAN JEFFERYS: Don't Keep Repeating Web Lies
From the beginning of time, we have relied on a variety of sources for news and information.
Paintings on cave walls were examples of some, town criers and hieroglyphics came into their own and, thanks to Guttenberg, newspapers became a standard. Were all of these media trustworthy? Sometimes.
Therein lies the rub. The mass media reach more people than cave paintings, but the very vastness of news circulation lends itself to more than an occasional slip -- some of it deliberate and less than subtle.
When television entered the scene, we suddenly had the most powerful medium the world had ever seen. Millions of people around the world were reachable by news people who generated trust and believability. Were these news people truly trustworthy? Sometimes.
Today, we have another medium that far surpasses television and all other news-dispensing devices. It is called the Internet. And the real power that it holds is that anyone can become a one-man band in telling the world the truth or part of the truth or a pack of lies. The Internet is much more powerful than TV because it is instant in its global reach. And much like the blind items that used to permeate gossip columns and destroy reputations, anonymous quotes can twist the truth like pretzels.
Time and again, I have vowed never to be fooled by forwarded smears. But recently, I bit again and forwarded a piece that common sense should have told me was false. It does not matter which one it was, I sent it on. And, after the fact, I checked a couple of fact checkers, all of whom pronounced it false. I'm still wiping the egg off my face.
Searching for the truth is not simply a matter of snopes.com. Snopes checks and reveals its take on whether an item is true or false, but even Snopes can be mistaken. That Web site is run by a man and his wife who are theoretically dedicated to keeping all on the up and up. But, with so much out there whizzing back and forth between homes and nations, they can be excused if they stumble from time to time. There are other sites like truthorfiction.com and factcheck.org, which gives us less and less excuse for forwarding what are called urban legends.
I don't use forwarded poison-pen notes for this column. Here, I resort to the old newsman's rule of checking at least two sources before you put anything into print. But we all get dozens of e-mails a day with things that sound good enough to forward to friends and acquaintances even though they are not worthy of a column. We should check before we hit "Forward," but sometimes laziness gets in the way. And then there is always the hope this piece of dirt will be true.
The main problem with the Internet is that anyone can write a blog. You can become an instant commentator with neither credentials nor high cost. You can also target people anonymously and, with lies and innuendo, place their heads on chopping blocks.
Currently, the most maligned target is President Obama. Vile and foul statements are attributed to him and forwarded around the world. Like most arrogant egotists, he is an easy target, especially with an unearned Nobel Peace Prize, but that is no excuse for subjecting him to false accusations.
I was initially opposed to him because he lacked any experience in governing and because he was an avowed liberal. I held my breath as he steered his campaign toward the center but became fearful as he moved quickly to the extreme left. Nonetheless, I think butchering attacks, fraught with falsehood, are counterproductive and unlikely to garner support for conservatism.
It comes down to trust. Before we can convince opponents to join us, we must first convince them to trust us. That cannot be done when we forward flamboyant diatribes that are patently false.
As the Russian expression quoted by Ronald Reagan put it so well: Trust, but verify.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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