The digital space is crackling with fury and anxiety as the presidential campaigning heats up. The bad news: Things will grow worse leading up to Election Day in November. Rumors, half-truths, urban legends and gross distortions of actual events will be passed off as the gospel truth.
Of course, humans don’t need the Internet to defame. The difference is that spreading falsehoods while seated at the hard-hat cafe in decades past doesn’t have the reach of our current technology.
So, what have we learned from the digital space in recent weeks?
• Several Facebookers were claiming the president has a 19-year-old son named Luther, the product of a brief relationship in the early 1990s between a younger Obama and a cashier at a diner in Springfield, Ill. An article highlighted by these Facebook friends described the teen as “shy, slightly overweight” and doing grunt work for his father’s re-election campaign.
We also learned that many of my Facebook friends aren’t aware of The Onion, the satirical publication that published this fictitious story under the headline, “Obama’s 19-Year-Old Son Makes Rare Appearance At DNC.” Other Onion headlines last week were: “Romney: ‘We Should Never Apologize For American Values Or Japanese Internment Camps’ ” and “Rising Star John Kerry’s Stirring Speech Paves Way For 2016 Presidential Run.”
• A team from the U.S. Health and Human Services department visited Atlanta’s Emory Hospital last month, per an email sent to me. The HHS staffers were there to set up new procedures related to the 2010 Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act. Specifically, the email breathlessly reported, once the presidential election is over, doctors will be required to consult with a federal panel before performing surgery on anyone over the age of 70 “no matter how urgent or life threatening the situation is.” Doctors and hospitals that fail to comply will face steep sanctions.
A quick check with Emory revealed that the email was a hoax. According to Vincent J. Dollard, associate vice president of communications at the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University, “HHS has not sent anyone to speak to our doctors.”
• The words “In God We Trust” are being removed from U.S. coins, claims an old email that is making the rounds again. In fact, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney alluded to this one last week during a campaign appearance in Virginia, saying “I will not take ‘God’ off our coins.”
PolitiFact.com, Snopes.com and FactCheck.org have all debunked the coin claims. In 2010, PolitiFact noted “the email has the standard ingredients of an Internet falsehood — sloppy punctuation, an abundance of exclamation points, a plausible story (“I received one from the Post Office as change and I asked for a dollar bill instead’), a request to spread the email far and wide (“Please send to all on your mailing list!!!’) and screaming capital letters (“IN GOD WE TRUST’ IS GONE!!!’).”
The rationale seems to be: Somebody took the time to type this and it agrees with my view of the way things work, so it must be true. This steady stream of inaccuracies via social media and my email inbox raises two questions. Why does this segment of people so thoroughly distrust journalists, who are trained to practice accurate and accountable reporting? Why instead do they trust non-sourced and dubious claims that almost invariably are produced by someone they don’t know.
As usual, the old rules apply. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.