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Debunking those Internet rumors

Have you heard that new patriotic-themed Pepsi cans omit the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance? That President Obama has proclaimed this month to be “International Muslim Awareness Month?” That a study found that Fox News viewers have lower IQs than nonviewers? That a Hobby Lobby store manager killed an employee by stoning?

None of these things actually happened. And yet all of them are being passed around as truth by email and on Facebook.

Preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”—and he lived in the 19th century, long before our modern social media was available to help speed lies along.

People were falling for hoaxes long before the Internet was invented. During my years as a working journalist, I wrote stories debunking myths that circulated for years in the Christian community, kept alive by photocopiers and mimeograph machines. Here are three of the most persistent rumors from that time:

  • The organization founded by former atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is petitioning the federal government to ban all religious broadcasting.
  • The head of Procter & Gamble is appearing on talk shows to admit his company’s ties with the Church of Satan.
  • An Illinois company is making a movie about the “sex life of Christ.”

None of those stories were true, but that didn’t stop earnest, well-meaning people from circulating them. At one point, the FCC had received more than 30 million pieces of mail regarding the non-existent effort to ban religious radio and TV programs, and was answering hundreds of related calls each month.

Why do we fall for such stories? Sometimes it’s because we want it to be true. A person with a vague sense of indignation will welcome the arrival of something specific to which they can attach their outrage. We hear a story that’s so bizarre that we’re sure nobody would have made it up, and we believe it because it reinforces our ideas about how the world works.

Some may believe hoaxes are true because they’ve lost track of the real meaning of “truth.” During my grad school years, I studied under professors who were certain that there was no such thing as “truth with a capital T.” Everything was relative (except, strangely, for their absolute belief in the idea that there are no absolutes).

Sadly, sometimes people don’t even care if the things they are saying are true. I once heard a friend say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true, as long as it hurts Obama.” (For those of you playing along at home, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is in the Bible; “Hurt Obama” is not.)

I do my part to stop Internet falsehoods in their tracks by responding to fraudulent Facebook posts with a link to the relevant debunking articles on Snopes.com, a website that provides a fast and easy way to check the truth of rumors before passing them on. For one friend who has been taken in by a false claim that Snopes.com is funded by liberal activists, I instead post links from TruthOrFiction.com, an equally useful site.

Of course, I don’t mind being “that guy,” the snarky know-it-all who acts like he’s a member of the truth police. But if you have better social skills than I do and therefore don’t want to risk offending others by correcting them, try the classic “feel, felt, found” approach to opinion change in your response, like this:

  • I can see why you feel that our government should be doing more to protect us from Bigfoot.
  • I too felt that Bigfoot would break into my home to steal my Wheat Thins.
  • But then I found this website explaining that it was just a television commercial.

So the next time your sister-in-law’s neighbor’s hairdresser posts something on Facebook claiming that our president is a secret Kenyan Muslim who will be personally coming to our homes to take our guns and use them to kill our grandmothers, don’t just believe it. Take a deep breath, check Snopes.com or TruthOrFiction.com, then do your part to make the world a better place. (Or at least a less gullible place.)



— by Dr. Doug Trouten

Trouten is a professor of communications at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.