This is old news, I know. Various political forums mentioned the “Obama is a MUSLIM” e-mail smear campaign more than a month ago. But when I read about it, my understanding was this hatemongering and lying – or at least the lying – had been laid to rest.
But then the e-mail was forwarded to me. Thoughtfully. As in, “you should know this.”
I trust this friend. This friend is a good person. This friend has a college degree and has read more books than most of our presidential candidates, probably.
And this friend forwarded me a whole troop of malicious lies after truth has already had a very long day and has gotten undressed for bed.
Coming in a month late in the chain, I responded to the forty or so names the person who forwarded the e-mail to my friend had left exposed. That brief response and the e-mail itself are posted at RootTruth.org so as not to clutter the Idea Lab blog.
How can the media be so untrusted that well-meaning people choose to believe blatantly unsourced lies in an anonymous e-mail forward?
Now, I have to be clear. I don’t trust the establishment media to give me anything close to an accurate picture of the world or, indeed, of the below-mean-income majority in the United States. I know the major media corporations will not refrain from removing almost all my choices by the time I can vote in a primary.
To take an example from the Republican side, if media from NPR to NBC hadn’t treated Mitt Romney as a frontrunner (on account of his money) from back when he polled in the single digits, he would have been a third-tier candidate (despite his money) before now. (I certainly would never expect coverage to be about anything but polls and strategy.)
Has anyone calculated Mike Huckabee’s votes-per-dollar? And then gone the extra step and put a price on the free media time the candidates have received, and factored that in? The dollar-for-dollar difference between Huckabee and other candidates must be astounding, perhaps unprecedented.
This must be in part due to people, a significant number of whom vote in Republican primaries, who really do not trust the media. In this context, and many others, I would argue that not trusting the media is a good thing: the healthy first step of admitting we have a problem.
But even I would be skeptical of claims of religious extremism of a candidate (well, let’s not go into some of the candidates’ interpretations of Christianity) in a race where religion has again featured prominently in the coverage. I would not automatically assume the media is hiding claims patriotically revealed in an anonymous, unsourced e-mail. I would at least check the e-mail’s one reference, to Snopes.com, where it is specifically debunked, before forwarding it to anyone.
Yet thinking people do hold and endorse patently false beliefs. Bad media hasn’t prompted people to develop their built-in detector of lies and spin; instead it seems they’ve tuned out a lot of media and turned the “where’s this coming from?” filter off. The issue is a lot bigger than political hit jobs in e-mail forwards.
I’m sorry if I sound alarmist. It’s been my impression that the proportion of Internet users who receive and read, let alone forward, inane e-mails has been dropping. I have no idea what the relative reach of this forwarded e-mail is, just this one anecdote.
But it hit home.
The experience helps me understand why, reading and agreeing with G. Patton Hughes’ excellent celebration of forums over blogs, I still felt that online bulletin boards, conversational forums are not nearly enough.
To reach enough people our conversation must also use push technologies like e-mail (television and radio are another type of push technology).
To include a lot of people in the conversation it must be filtered or moderated in some way. There are some tried and true and some innovative ways to keep online conversations at a human scale (tip to someone with a nimbler brain: that link is worth an Idealab post in itself).
The best solution (that is to say, humbly, my proposed solution) is self-moderation by people in a network – including a massive network of potentially everyone. Filtering would be done by random people drawn from the network, and among many other potential approaches it would be integrated with a system that prevents duplicate messages (that latter feature alone might help bring in heavy e-mail forwarders) and promotes easy sharing within more intimate groups of contacts.
I don’t know if my friend would use such a system. I don’t know how much a network like this would help the truth will out.
But I’m a little bit desperate because we need a new media system that changes our interactions with it and with each other. Desperately.
Because the most disturbing thing about that e-mail wasn’t the false claim that Barack Obama is Muslim. The most disturbing thing is the success assertion that it would matter. Quite apart from the fate of one of the establishment-acceptable politicians running for president (none of which offer true hope for change from the policies that have brought us here without a great deal more pressure from below), we as a nation cannot afford to buy into hate, religious or otherwise, with our global problems of poverty, environmental destruction, and war coming due.