Slaying spam with Snopes

by Chris Lowrance

Here we go again. Another e-mail in my inbox with “Fwd: FW: FWD: FWD: Fw:” forming half the subject, sent by some relative to me and about 20 other acquaintances. They started as a trickle — the usual tales of footprints in sand and photos of Jesus on toast, either asking or warning me to forward them to a dozen people by sundown. My personal favorite is the misattributed hate speech: an angry rant against immigration “written by” Bill Cosby, or the 10 ways both Bill Gates and George Carlin thought kids today didn’t work

hard enough. Sure sounds like the thoughts of a pro-civil rights comedian, a college drop-out and the voice of a counter-culture to me. As summer’s brutal primary season rolled in, a subtle shift in tone occurred. I got fewer animated gifs of office drones shooting their computers (“Ha, ha, don’t we all feel like this?”) and more messages about the candidates. Apparently, the usually anonymous authors of these e mails had better sources than the entire staff of the New York Times, Washington Post or cable news, because they were scooping the hell out of ’em. Obama, it turns out, really is a radical Muslim — he admits it! — who never places his hand on his heart during the National Anthem and won’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He’s been quoted — quoted! — as saying he plans to redistribute wealth Communist-style once elected, and while visiting the front in Afghanistan he shunned soldiers and only stopped long enough for a photo op. Wow, what amazing reporting from this new wave of citizen journalists. Oh, wait, except it’s all bullshit. Anyonewith as strong a knowledge of the campaign as I do — which is to say, anyone who listens to NPR and reads a few newspapers — knows this. That’s why it’s tempting to let them rot in my spam folder alongside my long lost Nigerian granduncle and those pills to “make it

grow nonstop.” But then I read the head, and see all those people who were also sent this. Many are friends and family. Several chose to forward it, either because they bought it or they weren’t sure. Then there’s my mom, who forwards them to me for one reason. Mom knows what I’m going to do next. If the e-mail has reached me, it’s reached Snopes. com. Snopes has been around since 1995, when Barbara and David Mikkelson decided to launch a separate endeavor from the folklore newsgroup they met on. The site essentially breaks down urban legends, myths and rumors into categories, then attempts to classify them as true, false or unverifiable. The Mikkelsons are essentially doing 90 percent of a good journalist’s work: verification, via records, interviews and other tools of the trade. They have been known to get it wrong on occasion, but for the most part they do an admirable job and are frequently referenced by mainstream media. Needless to say, they find and debunk a lot of bullshit, and with the election coming up they’ve got their work cut out for them. The “Inboxer Rebellion” section of Snopes, devoted to chain e-mails, is one of the biggest and fastest-growing parts of the site, and currently the most popular subcategory is “Barack Obama,” with “John McCain” in a distant 11th place. I wonder why more people are finding it necessary to lie about Obama, just like they did with John Kerry four years ago? The problem with chain e-mails is that, for whatever reason, people don’t question them. It could be because they mostly come from acquaintances, people whose judgment you trust. Sometimes they try the old “appeal to authority,” my favorite logical fallacy — something like “My son is in Iraq and he says…” or “I saw this on CNN….” One unfortunate result of Snopes’ popularity is the insertion of “I checked this on and it’s true!” to e-mails that obviously are not. This is the worst kind of bullshit, because at this point the original author has abandoned all pretense: he or she knew this was bullshit when they wrote it. There is a special place in hell for them — I know because I read about it on Snopes. Sohere’s what happens to chain e-mails that reach me. I check Snopes. Ifthey don’t have anything on it yet, I forward it to them, then checkaround on my own. I hit “reply all,” then carefully copy and paste thee-mails of anyone who ever saw this particular branch (it’s all in thehead of the message). I write a nice note about checking facts and notbuying into nonsense, then I click “send” and make dozens of people atouch smarter. It’s a good feeling, a much better one thanjust grumbling and clicking “delete.” I did hate having to debunk thatphotoshopped image of Sarah Palin in a bikini. Fair is fair, though.

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