Monday, July 13, 2009

Skepticism, A Citizen's Responsibility

A recent email informed me that Pepsi was producing a patriotic beverage can with the words “under God” omitted from the Pledge of Allegiance. Another claimed that while her husband was in Europe and Africa, Michelle Obama was using taxpayers’ money to flit around Europe on an extravagant spending spree. Still another warned that anyone using a cell phone while it’s charging is in serious danger of being burned or electrocuted.

The good people who forwarded these emails to me are all persons I know and believe to be essentially honest. They are also, like so many of us, extremely gullible. With all good intentions, they habitually pass on alarming reports, convinced by slick rhetoric, a tone of anger or outrage, or even (as in the case of the cell phone claims) provocative photographs. The trouble is that, intentionally or not, they are often spreading lies.

Such lies are not harmless. Free-floating anxiety is rampant enough in our highly credulous society. The emotions most commonly inspired by false claims and conspiracy theories—fear and anger—can easily derail logical thought and interfere with good decision making. Anonymous Internet slander can be used intentionally to harm the reputations of business competitors or rival political candidates.

I propose that, instead of hitting the Forward button, we all get in the habit of verifying the content of any emails that come our way. This can easily be done by checking current news reports or fact-checking web sites, such as Snopes.com or Factcheck.org. If you can’t verify it, delete it. Let’s stop wasting time and emotional energy on other people’s fantasies and anonymous lies.

7 comments:

The Tarquin said...

One problem with these emails is that they play on the power of the Internet as a highly efficient, very general communications network. The chain of events that gets us from "Michelle Obama was in Europe" to "Michelle Obama bought a diamond-encrusted albino giraffe using taxpayer money" isn't a new thing. In fact, it's the same process as what changed the message "things are pretty decent for immigrants in America" to "America's streets are paved with gold" during the 19th century.

The difference is, of course, that messages on the internet can be garbled or misinterpreted faster now than ever before.

Of course they can be corrected much more quickly now as well. I would add that, in addition to checking Snopes.com or similar sites, one should generally assume that any email forwarded more than once is wrong. A glib rule, but one that's saved me on numerous occasions.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more! Very well said! However, I do find it odd as I read over your most current post and contrast it to this one that it IS a citizens responsibility to not blindly trust. We have an responsibility to fellow citizens to challenge and verify the information being circulated. You are now likely in the habit of fact checking all email forwards making lofty claims because of your experience. I too feel that way about the government - the history both current and past of both Republicans AND Democrats leads me to be skeptical of anything they fight for. Not necessarily oppose it or be the 'Dr. No' of the room, but before we sign everyone on board to paying for a program, or worse... sign up to take away someone elses money and redistribute it, we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to be a perpetual skeptic.

Citizen Jane said...

Hello, A.

Your point is well taken. However, if we are always skeptics or (like so many Congressional Republicans) just plain oppositional, no progress can be made on any issue. Yet responsible citizens must ask questions and speak out when they're sure the government is wrong. The trick, as in so many things, is finding the right balance--in this case, between skepticism and trust. Too much or too little of either can be counterproductive.

Each of us must decide where our areas of expertise may lie and when we have enough information to make a decision. For example, it seemed clear to me from the beginning that we had no business sending troops into Iran, and nothing that happened since that action was taken has changed my mind. On the other had, when it comes to complex issues where there is no clear "right" or "wrong"--such as the economy and the environment--we may have to trust experts and withhold judgment for as long as it takes--maybe leaving the decisions to others with more depth of knowledge in that particular area.

That means, of course, resisting the tendency to react emotionally to any 15-second sound bite we may hear about a subject--regardless of who paid for the ad.

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