As the presidential campaigning becomes intense this summer, political emails will be visiting if not flooding your inbox. Can you believe them? Is the “shock and awe” of political detritus spinning you or manipulating your perceptions?
Back in 2008, Factcheck.org wrote about chain emails, particularly about political emails, which many times contain false, misleading, bogus and completely off-base claims. They are designed to frighten and alarm readers without telling the real story, particularly if they are anonymously sent.
They reported Snopes.com had been investigating e-mail and other urban legends since 1995, and the site’s founders, Barbara and David Mikkelson, have written articles about 31 e-mails related to Barack Obama and Hillary (and Bill) Clinton in 2008. Only two e-mails were completely accurate. While a handful had elements of truth in them or couldn’t be verified, the vast majority were flat-out false.
Factcheck noted that the more times something is forwarded, the more likely it is to be false. They suggested this perverse theory when they threw cold water on the claim that the United Kingdom, or the University of Kentucky, had stopped teaching about the Holocaust. E-mails about Obama, for instance, have been particularly popular and would mostly likely have been one of the most popular approaching November of 2008. We can expect a similar trend in 2012. They ranked as No. 3 on Snopes.com’s list of the 25 Hottest Urban Legends, and one rumor held the No. 1 spot in 2008 in David Emery’s About.com guide Top 25. But only one of the e-mails these sites had examined is true – and actually only a certain version of it passed the truth test.
This was one attempting to discredit Obama. It claimed that he didn’t put his hand over his heart while the Star Spangled Banner played. That specific allegation was correct, as documented in a photo of presidential candidates at an Iowa steak fry. But it was false, as some versions of the e-mail said, that he "will NOT recite the Pledge of Allegiance nor will he show any reverence for our flag." They debunked this and other legends about Obama early in 2008 after receiving a rush of questions about them.
Factcheck warns if there was ever a case where readers should apply a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard, this is it. FactCheck.org asked the public to be skeptical about politicians’ claims. With these e-mails, outright cynicism is justified. Assume all such messages are wrong, and you’ll be right most of the time.
In an e-mail to FactCheck.org, Emery says in 10 years of this line of work, he has looked into a thousand or so e-mails. Pressed to give a ballpark figure for how many are true, he responds: "I’d venture to say that less than a tenth of what’s circulating out there at any given time turns out to be 100% true. A substantially larger portion – maybe around half of all the emails or a little more – contain a mixture of facts and falsehoods." Then there’s a little thing called "spin." "You can take a string of incontrovertible facts and present them in such a way that they point to a false conclusion."
As for e-mails with political themes, Emery says, who has been at this longer than we have, the phenomenon has increased greatly in recent years, with a marked surge in 2004 through attacks on John Kerry. "I’m tempted to say that Internet rumor-mongering has become, for lack of a better word, ‘integral’ to the political process over the past few election cycles."
Internet-fueled innuendo has prompted stronger and quicker responses from the candidates, says Emery, who adds that it’s unclear whether or not any of these e-mails were written by political staffers themselves. "It’s possible, and I think even likely, that at least a few of these rumors were started by political operatives, but I’m not aware of any hard evidence of that."
Often, the message itself includes major red flags that should alert readers that the author is not to be trusted. Here are just a few of what we’ll call Key Characteristics of Bogusness:
The battle against viral email is a monster. Such emails will be just as active in 2012 as it was in 2008 presidential campaign. Take some time to examine the emails you receive for credibility by doing your own fact-checking.
Read a long list of bogus political emails here.
Unfortunately, it seems that no matter the facts, the desire to believe some of the bogus information is just too strong. Emery, too, has come to believe that there’s not enough proof in the world to stop certain political propaganda. "I have come to the conclusion that especially where political rumors are concerned, most people are so locked into a particular worldview that they tend to reject any information, no matter how well supported, that contradicts their cherished assumptions," he says. "It’s scary, actually, how polarized we have become.
"In a 2004 report on this topic, our director, Brooks Jackson, called for an end to the e-mail madness, saying, 'This cyber-sickness should stop. All it takes is a little bit of common sense and skepticism, some curiosity and a few keystrokes. Nailing these lies can even be fun.' "
Not much has changed since 2004, so buyers of political information beware. Factcheck suggests if you don’t have time to confirm and investigate on your own, a liberal use of the delete key is recommended.
Here is a previous report I wrote about having your perceptions manipulated. There is a test to evaluate the veracity of information.