Monday, December 7, 2009

Internet mythology

People are increasingly weaving their own views of the world from strands of fact and fancy using email and the Web.

Thomas Friedman’s Nov. 28 column, “America vs. The Narrative,” gives a vivid example, based upon the reaction to the killing of 13 people at Fort Hood by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

Friedman notes Hasan’s support for Muslim suicide bombers, a seminar presentation he made entitled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam,” and his contacts with a Yemeni cleric who supported jihad violence against America.

All that, Friedman writes, makes him believe “that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by ‘The Narrative.’”

“The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand ‘American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy’ to keep Muslims down.”

Friedman notes the persistence of this belief despite U.S. efforts on behalf of Muslims “in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Many Americans assume the jihadists are deluded, but carry their own persistent misconceptions. A favorite uncle has me on his email list for every crackpot chain-letter he gets.

I say “crackpot,” because nearly every claim I’ve checked from these – usually some lurid story about President Obama, Speaker Pelosi or some other liberal enemy of the conservatives, is wrong.

Here’s a typical chain-letter, titled “Pelosi’s jet,” which features a picture of a large military aircraft and this caption:

“This Jet is the USAF C-32, Boeing 757, that MADAME PELOSI uses. And the Democrats want to talk about Sarah's dress??? Conservatives! Are you out there? Madame Pelosi wasn't happy with the small jet USAF C-20B, Gulfstream III, that comes with the Speaker's, Madame Pelosi was aggravated that this little jet had to stop to refuel, so she ordered a Big Fat 200-seat USAF C-32, Boeing 757 jet that could get her back to California without stopping!”

There’s much more, but most of it is false, according to, the authoritative fact-checker of Internet lore. Snopes reports that the House speaker, third in the line of succession to the president, has been assigned military transport since 9/11, and that the jet in question was not routinely used.

Another chain letter is simply titled, “NFL or NBA?” and recites the supposed list of crimes and personal problems of a group of people:

36 have been accused of spousal abuse
7 have been arrested for fraud
19 have been accused of writing bad checks
117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses
3 have done time for assault
… And so on.

The group that has achieved such low distinction turns out to be members of Congress, the email says – “The same group of Idiots that crank out hundreds of new laws each year designed to keep the rest of us in line.”

Snopes reports that the email dates to 1999 and is problematic because, since none of the people are identified by name, it’s impossible to verify the claims. It’s also odd that the email does not claim any of the lawmakers was actually convicted of anything – but only arrested. Criminal convictions are reported on all the time in the news. Why go to all the trouble to compile such a list, one might wonder, without adding the specifics necessary to make it believable?

Obama is the subject of numerous bogus Internet claims, including the contention that his birth certificate was forged and he should not legally have been allowed to take office. The latest turn in the story occurred in August when a Kenyan birth certificate was produced allegedly showing Obama was born in that country. The document was quickly proven to be a forgery.

What’s this mean? Rumors have always been part of politics, but never has a lie – or any other information – been able to take flight around the world with such speed. The real concern here might lie not in the existence and spread of these rumors, but the way in which some people who believe in them increasingly isolate themselves from fact-checked sources of information.

Newspapers are hardly perfect. But they adhere to standards of fairness and accuracy that require stories to be checked before they’re printed. But my good uncle and many others have given up on the “mainstream media” and instead get much of their information from talk radio, internet chain-letters and other unreliable sources that serve mostly to reaffirm their readers’ and listeners’ beliefs.

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