September 16, 2008
Commentary: Rumors Run Amuck
By Shannon Warren
Perfectly nice, honest people can pass along some of the nastiest rumors. It's not out of malicious boredom, for there are plenty of interesting headlines to discuss. After all, this past week, there were accusations about an alleged sex scandal at the Mineral Management Service. And, of course, who didn't have a comment about the colorful political analogies of pit bulls and pigs wearing lipstick?
Despite having truth-is-stranger-than-fiction issues to discuss, we mindlessly forward emails of juicy urban legends. Take, for example, a close acquaintance of mine. Thinking it fun, he sent an email barrage of misleading information that he had "researched" on the internet. In turn, I introduced him to Snopes.com. Started in 1995, this popular website debunks urban myths and rumors. It is run by a California couple, who named it in honor of some disagreeable characters created by novelist William Faulkner.
Snopes offers a clever rating system so the user can tell at a glance if the information is true or not. They use reliable sources, posted alongside their common sense responses. By the way, there are several other sites dedicated to exposing internet rumors, including About Urban Legends, but I'm not as familiar with them. However, my friend David White of Tulsa tells me that his favorite debunking site is Truth or Fiction.com
With handy tools like these, it doesn't take much time to verify the validity of a viral email, blog or claim posted on YouTube. So, why do we continue to forward deceptive, sometimes destructive, unchecked information? Many consider it harmless entertainment, not realizing that real people do get hurt by the buzz. Consider the plight of the man whose private accusations about another person were sent, along with his personal contact information, to thousands of unintended recipients. Once on the web, his error was irretrievable, with no adequate opportunity to erase or correct the communique. He finally asked Snopes.com for help in stopping this runaway rumor, indicating it had seriously disrupted his life. Unfortunately, the commotion caused is unlikely to cease. Life of a rumor on the World Wide Web appears to be eternal.
Take for example, the urgent email about a deadline for registering one's cell phone number on the national Do-Not-Call Registry. Its purported mission was to save us from an onslaught of calls from marauding telemarketers. Amazingly, this tall tale started back in 2004. At a time when providers were considering a national directory, Snopes,com reported that "Someone made the wild leap of reasoning that the proposed creation of a cell phone directory was the equivalent of giving cell phone numbers to telemarketers" and the alarm bell was sounded. Somewhere along the way, probably to add a sense of urgency, a deadline was incorporated. (There is neither a plot to publish cell phone numbers, nor a deadline for registering that information. Yet, this vigorous rumor persists.)
How widespread is the problem of internet gossip? Many of us have had these ludicrous hoaxes hit our desktops lately, with our political candidates getting the exhausting brunt of it: There are several uncomplimentary fake photos featuring Governor Palin's image. Have you seen the false claim about Senator Obama not citing the Pledge of Allegiance? Or, heard that Microsoft will pay you cash for forwarding emails as part of a tracking system? (They won't.) How about those "actual" photos of popcorn popping from the microwaves transmitted by cell phones? (The preposterous implication being that your brain will surely be fried, too.)
This silliness goes on and on. Snopes.com listed six companies that were wrongly reputed to be owned by the KKK. Another three were falsely accused of donating their profits to the church of Satan. Finally, I noticed that the rumors about Coca-Cola were so abundant, that they were given their own special spot on the Snopes menu: "Cokelore."
While my acquaintance accused me of being "no fun", the junk mail traffic has slowed a bit and the worn-out delete button on my keyboard is getting a break. That allows more opportunity for authentic and intelligent discussions. So, I figure that being a bit of a curmudgeon is okay - especially when I consider the alternative of lower standards. Back in the 1700's, Edmond Burke had it right when he said,: "All it takes is for evil to triumph in the world, is for good men to do nothing."
Shannon Warren is the founder of the Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium, a nonprofit, non-sectarian organization whose mission is to establish Oklahoma as a state known for valuing integrity in business. For information on meetings and membership, log on to: www.okethics.org.
Originally published by Shannon Warren.
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