Monday, September 19, 2011

Trust with Verification

“Trust, but verify” was a signature phrase adopted by President Ronald Reagan to describe his Cold War policy towards the Soviet Union. I apply it today with increasing frequency because we live in an era when lies and half-truths about socio-political-economic news and events can be disseminated via social networking with alarming success, and few people seem concerned enough to verify questionable content before forwarding it and becoming pawns in a political system wrought with deceit.

The fact is, most of my family and friends do not have the time, or make the time, to fact check controversial or questionable items before forwarding them via email or Facebook.

Retractions are rarely as effective as the original message if they are sent at all, so falsehoods go unchecked through cyberspace for what can be perpetuity. The creators of these stories (politicians, lobbyists, radicals, and probably the Sean Hannity’s of this world) know this, and use it to their advantage to fulfill their political agendas. It is the epitome of self-righteousness because they are willing to lie in order to derail their opposition.

Three examples of “cyberfibs” crossed my desk today that prompted me to write this blog. My friends and family did not originate the falsehoods, but they certainly did not verify their sources before hitting the send button.

Earlier this morning, a friend sent me an email about President Obama supporting HR 4646, the resolution that would apply a 1% fee to all bank transactions. Here is the Snopes link refuting that story: The One Percent Solution. He did apologize, saying that he did not fact check the story because he trusted the friend who sent it to him. See the pattern?

Next, my cousin acknowledged (via Facebook private message) the link I sent her refuting an email she sent about a shop owner who closed his store in honor of a Muslim “martyr” killed on 911: Store Honors Islamic Martyr. The shop owner did close his store in honor of a Muslim, but that martyr lived 600 years ago! “Okay, thanks,” my cousin said. I have to wonder how many of her family and friends forwarded that message without verifying its content.

Finally, another friend posted a warning on Facebook about not joining the group "Becoming a Father or Mother was the greatest gift of my life" because they are “pedophiles” trying to access your photos. Snopes refuted that one as well: Facebook 'Greatest Gift Group.

This trend is not new; it’s been happening for years via email, but Facebook has allowed it to morph into a more accessible form of communications.

Perhaps you remember the email about Budweiser pulling its entire product line out of a convenience store because the Muslim owners were celebrating the 911 attacks. Pure fabrication: This Bud's Not for You. Or the one about Lee Marvin and Captain Kangaroo being decorated WWII heroes: Captain Kangaroo Court. How about the one about Ollie North and Osama bin Laden? Oliver Twisted.

I am lucky. My work in public relations has prompted me to practice critical thinking and question the validity of dubious stories. I take nearly everything with a grain of salt until I have verified it myself through other sources. In fact, I even question the accuracy of Snopes sometimes.

My second reason for being careful is that I got burned circa 1999 because I forwarded an email to hundreds of people (including business contacts) from a frantic mother about her missing daughter. I sent out a retraction that same day after I learned the little girl was found at a neighbor’s house a few hours later, but was chastised by one business contact because he thought I was joking. Interestingly, I’ve received that same message more times than I can remember over the last dozen years, and it always reminds me of my faux pas.

On a related matter, one of my favorite newspaper columns was Jon Carroll’s 1990 piece called “Still Not in Baghdad” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is a link to my Facebook Notes page where I posted a transposition: Still Not in Baghdad. It’s a powerful and humorous piece if you take the time to read it, and it has everything to do with questioning what we see in the media.

Free speech and modern communications tools allow us to act like micro news bureaus because it doesn’t take a lot of expertise to forward, copy and paste, or generate links to stories with supporting photos or videos. Furthermore, many of us can pen our own stories. However, there is an inherent civic responsibility built into that power and privilege: we own it to each other and our democratic society to only forward stories that can be verified with a reasonable amount of effort, and more importantly, write stories containing factual information that supports our point of view.

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