Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Viral emails

I got two of 'em today.  I usually get 'em from my Dad.  You've all seen 'em, those emails with a whole bunch of names in the 'to:' box, some of whom you know.  My Dad sends along a bunch of 'em from a guy named Schwartzkopf, who I desperately hope is related to 'Stormin' Norman,' the General who led our troops in the first Iraq war, under the first President Bush.  The ones I get are always seriously right-wing, usually factually inaccurate to a spectacular degree, and overheated in tone.  Our country, it seems, is on the brink of some kind of disaster or another, and we have to do something about it.  Now.

The one today is about a Tennessee high school principal, Jody McLeod, and comments he made at a football game.  Dude was apparently ticked off because someone (his school district?) wouldn't let him say a prayer over the PA system, and so went off on a rant.  He seems to have thought that he could use the PA system to "approve of sexual perversion" as long as he called it "an alternate life style", or "condone sexual promiscuity" as long as he called it "safe sex." Seriously, at a football game?  I would love to see the high school where the principal got up there before the game and said "welcome to the game, and by the way, we're in favor of sexual perversion."  I think high school kids would find that pretty awesome.

When I get these things, first thing I do is check 'em out on Snopes.com.  Most of them, of course, are completely bogus.  Some are legit, but there's usually something hinky even about the legit ones.  This high school principal one, for example, actually did happen--the guy actually did say all this stuff.   In 2000.  So it's hardly breaking news. 

But there are a lot more out there.  Obama's a socialist Moslem, born in Kenya, and secretly anti-American and pro-terrorist, or whatever.  I've seen some reporting that Medicare premiums will go up by some preposterous amount (2 1/2 times is usually mentioned), or that Hillary Clinton has arranged with the UN to take away everyone's guns, or that President Obama has gotten rid of the White House Christmas tree, or taken away the decorations, or done something nefarious with it, or that he refused the honorary assignment of President of the Boy Scouts.  All nonsense.  And they're all right wing: Politifact checked out 79 of them, found them all to be false, 76 of them promoting conservative causes.

I have a theory about this.  I mean, young people are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to the internet.  My kids are a lot better at it than I am, for example.  I'm 56; I'm old.  But young people are also tremendously cynical when it comes to the internet.  If they got an email--unlikely, since young folks don't much use email--and it made some grandiose claim about anything, they'd immediately be suspicious of it. What am I saying? Heck, if my kids got an email that was political at all, they'd be suspicious. Let alone this kind of political 'Obama's-a-moslem-commie' stuff--they take that as seriously as they take Nigerian princes in need of their help.  They've been lied to professionally for years--every ad on television--they have their BS meters tuned to their highest settings. 

But older folks--folks older than me--do use email, and tend to trust it.  It's a way to stay in touch, and they're pretty proud of themselves.  They've figured out something internet-y.  So they get these things and they're . . . susceptible.

And older folks tend to be conservative. I really saw this the other day when I saw Dinesh D'Souza's anti-Obama film.  The theater was packed.  And I was just about the youngest person there.  The house skewed very old and very white, and they clearly ate it up.

And what's the message.  Obama isn't . . . one of us.  Obama can't really be trusted.  Obama is Other, something exotic and . . . probably not completely American.  I mean, his father's from Kenya, his step-father was Indonesian, Barack Obama grew up in Hawaii and Jakarta.  He took classes from people like Edward Said.  So there's political mileage in making that case.  I really think that's why the budget deficit President Bush racked up didn't seem to bother anyone, but the budget deficits Obama's had to contend with are really scary and really dangerous.  I mean, I get that, deficits are scary, and they are dangerous.  But they seem worse coming from a President whose middle name is Hussein.  And of course old white people care about few things on earth more than they care about their grandchildren.  That's why this meme works: "we're piling on debt for our grandchildren."   

Someone is writing these things.  Someone has figured out how to send them out. I mean, I'm a writer, and I know how hard it is to make a living as a writer, so I'm sympathetic, but somewhere, some poor schmo has the job of making up ridiculous nonsense about the President or our country, writing it up in an email, and sending it out to scare older folks.  Boy.  Talk about having a job that sucks.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that Democrats don't use email.  Dems just use it differently.  Every time a prominent Republican says something stupid, I get an email from the DNC or MoveOn or someone, saying "Do you agree with Congressman Stupid Person, who said "Moronic foolish stupid thing? If not, send money to help defeat Congressman Stupid Person!"  Democrats use 'em for fundraising.  Not quite the same virally vileness, but in the ballpark.  But mostly, it's because the guy really did actually say the dumb thing.  I mean, it probably doesn't represent any mainstream Republican policy position, but it's still in the general realm of acceptable political discourse, to use the other guys' stupidity to fund raise.

I chatted on Facebook the other night with an old friend, who asked, what do you do when your parents get these idiotic viral emails and believe them?  Boy, that's tough. You can send them to Politifact, you can send them to Snopes.  But who knows what they'll believe?  Somewhere, some guy has this terrible job writing these things.  But I bet it pays well.  Because they work. 


  1. I generally ignore them, especially when they're from my mother. I have been known to write back, though, when someone (usually a young person) has sent it. A young man I knew when he was a missionary, and knew to be pretty liberal, sent me one of those bogus petitions. I linked him to Snopes and told him "Welcome back to America. Now that you've learned about faith, learn about suspicion."
    Also, I'm 57, and I plan to die at age 142. I have not even hit middle age yet.

  2. I used to refer my aunt to Snopes when she'd forward these awful things. Her response? "You just can't trust Snopes -- you have to be really careful on the internet."

    Oh, and since it seems to be a requirement for this thread: I'm 53.

  3. Part of every social studies and English class I took in high school include sections on how to evaluate the validity of a source, way back when both printed material was the main way of getting information. I am 36, and Internet sources were considered unreliable if there was no "off line" publishing of the data to back up a website's claim. When evaluating a source we were also encouraged to consider what organization was publishing the info, and whether the politics or mission of the organization might lead it to make claims or share information as biased.

    At the time, the early 90s, more than one out of five or six sources was allowed to be an online sorce, for a paper to have legitimacy, the rest needed to be print sources. I am not sure I could find that ratio today, with so many organizations and newspapers having most or all of their content only available online.

    My parents teach high school; mom teaches English, dad teaches Spanish. All English and social studies classes still teach students how to evaluate sources, but so does every other class in the school. The differences between now and when I was in school seem to be:

    All sources are considered biased, so teachers try to help students to learn to articulate the bias with a source.
    Everyone uses Internet sources, and a paper that has all sources from websites is acceptable.
    Most libraries have as much information available electronically as they do in book.

    Personally, I have a very hard time understanding why anyone watches political ads or would get their news from a news source that's bias is so blatantly obvious, that it needs hours of talk show time to beat up on people, but have no reporters covering the major global problems around the world. I used to be fairly unusual in my generation, but now most of the friends I grew up with get the news from public radio or the BBC. Many of us exclusively watch shows on our DVR so that we don't have to watch commercials. If we are excited about a show we might start watching it halfway through, so we still are watching the show, but we don't have to put up with the commercials. After having the ability to skip the commercials growing up, I doubt my kids will be interested in watching them.

    The only people I know that watch political tv ads, and think they are relevant. Part of my brain always says, they have lived more than twice as long as I have, why would they fall for attack ads, after all the elections they have lived through? I don't have a good answer.

  4. Sigh. Your experience is mine, Eric. I have a well-meaning grandmother and mother who send me the Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:Check-Out-Who-Really-Forged-Obama's-Birth-Certificate emails. I can refer them to snopes as much as I want, back my responses up with other information...But it's no use. I still get the emails. Daily, almost. The thing is, I'm afraid there is a whole generation of limbaugh/beck followers who check their facts with "articles" on the internet and will not be swayed. I'm sure they are even more concerned about my being brainwashed by my liberal-biased higher education experience (at BYU!) than I am about their drive to warn the world of a secretly muslim socialist president. I think political polarization of this caliber is here for the long haul.