Debunking Email Forwards
By Heather Clisby on January 25, 2011
BlogHer Original Post
They first appeared around 1997, when my email was firstname.lastname@example.org, and they've become more creatively outrageous every year. You get them too -- the carelessly forwarded email from your mom's friend, your arch-conservative brother-in-law or your late bloomer friend who checks her email bi-monthly: The Misinformed Email. These are the mindless forwards that beget Snopes and Hoax Slayer and I'm here to warn you, I absolutely live to debunk them.
They primarily use real photos with fabricated stories to fit somebody's (Who? WHO???) personal political or religious beliefs. The mythical messages usually includes sentences like, "Why isn't the media covering this?", "Forward to your entire address book - if you dare!" and without fail, "GOD BLESS AMERICA!" The subject line is usually filled with glaring evidence: "FW: FW: Fw: Fw: Fw: FW: Must read!!" so it is clear the note has traveled the land far and wide with no one minding the Gate of Truth.
Well, I have taken up a volunteer position at said Gate, alongside many others. And much like the Minutemen along the Arizona border, our mission is resolute: Stop The Flow. My BlogHer editor, Julie, admitted to the same compulsive habit, saying, "My family calls me 'The Debunker.'" And I think it's safe to say that Andy Rooney is also a member.
My habit began years ago when my mother's neighbor, Herman, forwarded a heart-tugging email about the statue of a U.S. soldier made by a "grateful Iraqi." The photo showed a Middle Eastern man holding sculpting tools sitting before a bronze sculpture of a man in mourning. It went something like this:
"The statue was created by an Iraqi artist named Kalat, who for years was forced by Saddam Hussein to make the many hundreds of bronze busts of Saddam that dotted Baghdad. Kalat was so grateful for the Americans liberation of his country; he melted 3 of the heads of the fallen Saddam and made the statue as a memorial to the American soldiers and their fallen warriors. Kalat worked on this memorial night and day for several months.
Do you know why we don't hear about this in the news? Because it is heart warming and praise worthy. The media avoids it because it does not have the shock effect that a flashed breast or controversy of politics does. But we can do something about it. We can pass this along to as many people as we can in honor of all our brave military who is making a difference. Thank you!!
Send this to at least 1/2 of your address book!!!!!"
This reeked to me of Iraq war propaganda, which then caused me to froth at the mouth. So, I did the tiniest bit of digging and discovered that the artist, statue, and bronze sourcing were all quite real. However, the sculptor, Khalid Alussy, created the statues not because he was "grateful" but because he was paid $18,000. (He'd also been paid similarly by Saddam.) A Wall Street Journal article at the time noted that Mr. Alussy is not a huge fan of America and remains bitter about a relative killed in a US rocket attack. Nuggets of truth with a fabricated back story -- the standard recipe.
With truth in hand, a decision had to be made:
A) Ignore the ignorance and move on with my day.
B) Reply to Herman and let him know the truth.
C) Reply to everyone on the list, risk embarrassing Herman, and possibly be removed from his address book.
Right then and there I began a policy of always choosing "C" and facing the consequences. (A befuddled Herman sent back a polite response: "Thanks for the information.") Although it may seem rude on my part, I consider it equally impolite to stuff my inbox with fabrications. I've thought long and hard about this and always come to the same conclusion.
After a while, I may have developed a reputation of sorts as the emails dwindled. Some folks I never heard from again, which remains a glorious victory. Then, about a year ago, my sister-in-law, Mary Ann, included me in a group forward that renewed my habit. As per usual, I stopped whatever I was doing, plunged into research, hit "Reply All" and prayed that I hadn't destroyed our relationship.
Well, she got mad all right, but her anger was directed at the person who'd sent it to her. "How can people send lies like this? Why don't they pay more attention?" she wanted to know. Thus began a family tradition that brings me much delight. Whenever she receives an email that smells fishy, she forwards it to me with a request, "Can I please get the Heather Truth?" Because we come from different political viewpoints, I take extra special care to come through with the warts-and-all reality. My love for Mary Ann keeps me extra honest in this exchange.
As much as I enjoy debunking, I have come to consider it more carefully recently. In the wake of the Tucson shootings, my scary-smart colleague, Professor Kim Pearson, pointed me to a study by Brendan Nyhan that, she said,
"“found that the factual reporting rebutting the 'death panel' lie did not dissuade people who believed it. In fact, they held to their beliefs more firmly. That study stopped me cold, because I realize my efforts to debunk these various manufactured controversies might actually have the unintended effect of causing some readers to cling to them more firmly. Those of us who want to keep the focus on real problems need to find research-based methods of facilitating discussion."
Ack! The idea that my Miss Know-It-All efforts may cause certain lies to grow stronger, deeper roots has given me great pause. I certainly won't give up my quest but in light of the Tucson tragedy and Kim's point, I plan to take extra care in my self-imposed duty. Ultimately, people will or will not trust the source of the information and that trust is usually based on the emotional relationship with that source.
For example, just last week, MaryAnn again requested The Truth on an email. It was about Obama "canceling National Prayer Day" while hosting a Muslim prayer on Capitol grounds. It included a photo of O removing his shoes with the caption:
"Obama Prays to Allah. This is OUR President at an 'Islamic Prayer Day' session LAST WEEK AT THE WHITE HOUSE. Oh, yes, Obama prays all right: WITH THE MUSLIMS!" It went on and on, "…an INSULT TO OUR FOUNDING FATHERS." Etc. (Why are they always so dramatic? Who writes these? Fourteen-year-old girls?)
Of course, it was 90 percent untrue. (Yes, there is a National Prayer Day. No, he did not cancel it but actually defended it in Federal Court. Yes, he's taking his shoes off at a mosque…in Turkey, honoring culture protocol. Yadda yadda yadda.) Considering our vast political differences, Mary Ann's honest response made me feel like a real bridge had been crossed that day.
"THANK YOU! I knew you would get to the bottom of this. I know this also took some work, but I am VERY appreciative. I too am sick of the stupid shit."
--Mary Ann, my sister-in-law, response to my debunking
She then sent my detailed research to the entire group and received the following response, again addressed to the entire group:
"My hat is off to you, Mary Ann. Thanks for clarifying this. There is so much negativity going around. If you have nothing positive to say, then don’t say anything."
The discussion then sparked an interesting conversation on religion, worthy of its own post here. The experience, which took up a chunk of my day, was deeply satisfying and time well spent. However, I'm well aware that because the debunking came from a person (Mary Ann) of their own political beliefs -- a friend that they trust -- the folks on that list were open to considering another side to the story. Had it come from a stranger -- "Who the fuck is this Clizbiz person?" -- it would likely be overlooked, possibly mocked and most certainly deleted. Source is crucial.
All this debunking thunking has led me to create an informal guide I call Tips for Successful Debunking:
- Provide a chunky, meaty email using as much detail as possible.
- Pack as much as you can into that first paragraph and assume they may not read farther. (The Inverted Pyramid, we used to call it.)
- When using media sources, citing The New York Times may not help, depending on your audience. Try a source the audience might trust.
- Stay neutral. Pretend you are writing a Wikipedia entry.
- Do not use exclamation points. Ever!
- If possible, cite the photographer's name, the media they represent and when/where the photo was first published.
- When the story insists the media "refused to cover" the story, cite and link the media where the story appeared.
- If possible, mention how much time it take you to find the info. It will either make people appreciative or let them know it's not that hard to find.
- Source, source, source. Just giving your opinion, doesn't help.
Ideally, debunking will become more prevalent and maybe even someday considered an Olympic sporting event. I don't see it as a Left v. Right thing as plenty of falsehoods come from both sides ("Sorry kids, 'decider' is an actual word.") and they are ugly every time.
Perpetuating lies -- no matter what your political leanings -- doesn't help the tension in this country one bit. Falsehoods keep us going in one direction: backwards.
My name is Heather Clisby and I represent the Truth Party. Join us!
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz