A year of viral venom

At its best, the Internet is a powerful source of information on any topic one can imagine. At its worst, it is the old game of Telephone on steroids.

You remember the game — everyone lines up, the first person in line whispers a phrase into the ear of the next, and so on down the line. When the last person repeats what he or she heard, it bears little or no resemblance to what was originally said.

The game is useful as a lesson in the dangers of repeating gossip. It would be wonderful if everyone who wanted an e-mail account was required to participate in the game before being entrusted with the technology.

Alas, too many people are too willing to believe anything they receive in an e-mail, no matter how far-fetched. Not only do they believe it, they promptly forward it to a dozen or so friends, who dutifully pass it on.

Many of these chain e-mails involve urban legends of the alligators-in-the-sewers variety — unfortunate but reasonably harmless. It's the ones that purport to reveal previously unknown details of public policy that poison cyberspace with rumors that are misleading at best and maliciously false at worst.

The fine folks at FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan website operated by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, spend far too much time debunking this sort of nonsense. They also fact-check the utterances of politicians on a daily basis without favoring any party or perspective.

FactCheck just released a year-end report on chain e-mails, noting that many queries they received about such e-mails in 2010 involved falsehoods they refuted years ago. That's the other problem with "viral" e-mails — unlike smallpox, once they gain a foothold, they can't be eradicated.

In 2007, FactCheck started a feature called "Ask FactCheck" to respond to visitors' queries about e-mails they had received. The very first question had to do with an e-mail claiming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was planning to institute a windfall tax on retirement income. FactCheck determined the e-mail was entirely fabricated, right down to the quotes, and said so three years ago. They were asked about the very same claim in September of this year.

New falsehoods making the rounds in 2010 include claims that members of Congress voted themselves a pay raise (they didn't; they froze their pay instead) and voted to deny Social Security recipients a cost-of-living increase (they didn't; Congress has no control over benefit levels, which are set automatically based on official cost-of-living indexes).

A few other examples new this year:

  • It's not true that the White House is planning to tax all credit card transactions.
  • Muslims are not exempt from the new health care law.
  • President Obama did not order up a private jet for the first family's dog, Bo.

If you receive one of these e-mails, take the advice of the FactCheck staff: "Assume all such messages are wrong, and you'll be right most of the time."

If you still have doubts, visit www.factcheck.org or www.snopes.com, another reliable debunking site that also takes on urban legends.

You — and everyone in your address book — will be glad you did.

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