Last night before I went to bed, I checked my email and saw an email from a family member with a long list of retail store closings, many of them prominent and well-established stores found at malls throughout the country. I went to Snopes.com and found that while there was some truth to some parts of the email, the actual facts were more nuanced, so I emailed a link to the story unraveling the store closing email from Snopes.com as a response and went to bed.
I woke up this morning and found a response to my email below -- from a friend of my family member -- in my inbox [I edited for style, spelling and clarity only]:
Has anyone seen the email about Snopes being a Web site that is not particularly unbiased and neutral? The one I saw stated that it was funded by several very liberal supporters. You really can't believe everything you read. However, this email could be true. I just can't trust Snopes anymore given the history, which could very well be false as well. Who knows?
Since we’ve just completed an election cycle wherein it feels like the amount of lies and misrepresentations quadrupled, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss the concept of investigating, the need for critical thinking, and how we can indeed go about “knowing” what’s true or at the very least probable, so I wrote a response (which I edited some to correct formatting or typos).
My response to the above email begins here:
So what if snopes.com receives donations from liberals? They accept donations from everyone, so one can assume they also receive donations from conservatives? Would that make their work any less valid? They accept ads from the Wall Street Journal, a conservative publication, so does this mean Snopes.com work is bunk?
What this kind of rumor mongering speaks to is an urgent and I would argue critical need for all of us, self included, to step back from our own biases and prejudices, which can be difficult but also liberating.
Here are some sources that unravel the myth that Snopes.com is “liberal:”
· Snopes Under Fire ::: http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/internet/a/snopes_exposed.htm
· The National Review – a self-professed conservative publication founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., widely considered to be the most influential magazine for conservatives and Republicans -- had this to say about Snopes.com:
Snopes began as a purely urban-legends site in 1995, run out of the couple's home in the Los Angeles suburbs. But especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's become an invaluable resource for sifting through political and media facts and fallacies. You won't find a more exhaustive and nuanced dissection of Fahrenheit 9/11's central "big lie" — as Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, described Moore's claims about the Bush administration's supposedly sneaking Bin Laden family members out of the U.S. before the FBI had time to question them — than on Snopes …
Anyone, but especially reporters, should check out Snopes before passing on a story that seems too good to be true. The site isn't always a wet blanket; some tall tales turn out to be accurate.
As someone who has worked as a journalist and as a child abuse and neglect investigator, open-mindedness and critical thinking are key in investigative work, and assumptions and labeling can lead to erroneous conclusions. The last thing any of us wants in investigative work is for someone to cling to only “one” version of any particular issue since that would undermine the idea of seeking the truth.
Perhaps the rumor about Snopes.com being politically aligned springs from those who didn’t like seeing references and sources debunking the lies and misrepresentations circulating this political season, and chose instead to smear the debunking source by using the word “liberal,” making that word sound like a bad thing, which in reality it is no more true than if someone had said Snopes.com was funded by “conservatives.” The practice of smearing is a standard PR and political ploy a/k/a smear or kill the messenger and is designed to confuse and make us turn off that critical thinking part of the brain based on one’s own biases toward either conservatives or liberals.
To gain a better understanding of the tactics the PR industry uses to confuse:
· Watch the movie Thank You For Smoking, or
· Read Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, or
· unSpun: Finding Facts in World of Disinformation by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. unSpun was written to help people spot deception and provides tips for drilling down to the facts.
Another way to arm yourself against such hoaxes or myths on any topic – political or otherwise – use good reference Web sites, including Snopes.com, for deciphering and debunking. Other useful Web sites and sources:
· Analyze suspect emails using the seven red flags detailed in an article from FactCheck.org, That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously. I’ve included excerpts from the article's seven red flags below but to really get an idea of the breadth problem and the absurdity of some of the email hoaxes, read the full article.
Seven Red Flags for identifying bogus emails:
- The author is anonymous. Practically all e-mails we see fall into this category, and anytime an author is unnamed, the public should be skeptical. If the story were true, why would the author not put his or her name on it?
- The author is supposedly a famous person. Of course, e-mails that are attributed to legitimate people turn out to be false as well … we found that some oft-quoted words attributed to Abraham Lincoln were not his words at all.
- There’s a reference to a legitimate source that completely contradicts the information in the e-mail. Some e-mails will implore readers to check out the claims, even providing a link to a respected source. We're not sure why some people don't click on the link, but we implore you to do so. Go ahead, take the challenge. See if the information you find actually backs up the e-mail … one boasted that Snopes.com had verified the e-mail, but Snopes actually said it was false.
- The message is riddled with spelling errors. Ask yourself, why should you trust an author who is not only anonymous but partially illiterate?
- The author just loves using exclamation points. If the author had a truthful point to make, he or she wouldn’t need to put two, three, even five exclamation points after every other sentence.
- The message argues that it is NOT false. This tip comes from Emery, who advises skepticism for any message that says, "This is NOT a hoax!"
- There’s math involved. Check it. One message that falsely claimed more soldiers died during Bill Clinton’s term than during George W. Bush’s urged, "You do the Math!" We did. It’s wrong.
Factcheck.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics and accepts no funding from corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. More about them here.
Happy truth hunting!