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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously.

I’ve noticed that chain e-mails, particularly those about politics, have a lot of things in common: urgent and frightening messages; spelling errors; a tendency to blame mainstream media for not telling the real story; and false, misleading, utterly bogus, and completely off-base claims.

If there was ever a case where readers should apply a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard, this is it. We at FactCheck.org ask the public to be skeptical about politicians’ claims. With these e-mails, outright cynicism is justified. Assume all such messages are wrong, and you’ll be right most of the time.

Yes, there are a few chain e-mails floating around the Web that are actually true – but not many. And when it comes to messages about the top presidential contenders, truth in e-mail is an elusive quality. In our Ask FactCheck feature, launched late last year, we’ve looked into several e-mails our readers have sent to us. We’re just getting started, but overwhelmingly they have turned out to be false. Snopes.com has been investigating e-mail and other urban legends since 1995, and the site’s founders, Barbara and David Mikkelson, have written articles about 31 e-mails about Barack Obama and Hillary (and Bill) Clinton. Only two e-mails were completely accurate. While a handful had elements of truth in them or couldn’t be verified, the vast majority were flat-out false.

Another writer who debunks rumor and lore is David Emery, author of About.com’s Urban Legends page. He lists seven e-mails about Hillary Clinton and five about Barack Obama. His verdict: 12 false and misleading, 0 true.

We have yet to see e-mails about John McCain, and Emery notes a decidedly anti-Democrat tilt to the bulk of the e-mail chatter. But there’s still plenty of time before the election. In 2004, a left-leaning e-mail claimed the Bush administration was quietly pushing legislation to reinstate the military draft. The claim was bogus, but the e-mail prompted such paranoia that a GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a bill to reinstate the draft just to show that it rejected the measure. Snopes has chronicled two claims about McCain – both were true, and one was a positive story.

In an e-mail to FactCheck.org, Emery says in 10 years of this line of work, he has looked into a thousand or so e-mails. Pressed to give a ballpark figure for how many are true, he responds: “I’d venture to say that less than a tenth of what’s circulating out there at any given time turns out to be 100% true. A substantially larger portion – maybe around half of all the emails or a little more – contain a mixture of facts and falsehoods.” Then, there’s a little thing called “spin.” “You can take a string of incontrovertible facts and present them in such a way that they point to a false conclusion.”

As for e-mails with political themes, Emery, who has been at this longer than we have, says the phenomenon has increased greatly in recent years, with a marked surge in 2004 with attacks on John Kerry. “I’m tempted to say that Internet rumor-mongering has become, for lack of a better word, ‘integral’ to the political process over the past few election cycles.” Internet-fueled innuendo has prompted stronger and quicker responses from the candidates, says Emery, who adds that it’s unclear whether or not any of these e-mails were written by political staffers themselves. “It’s possible, and I think even likely, that at least a few of these rumors were started by political operatives, but I’m not aware of any hard evidence of that.”

More Popular = More Likely to Be Bogus

We’ve noticed that the more times something is forwarded, the more likely it is to be false. We suggested this perverse theory when we threw cold water on the claim that the United Kingdom, or the University of Kentucky, had stopped teaching about the Holocaust. E-mails about Obama, for instance, have been particularly popular – they now rank as No. 3 on Snopes.com’s list of the 25 Hottest Urban Legends and one rumor holds the No. 1 spot in Emery’s top 25. But only one of the e-mails these sites have examined is true – and actually only a certain version of it passes the truth test.

This is the one claiming that Obama didn’t put his hand over his heart while the Star Spangled Banner played. That specific allegation is correct, as documented in a photo of presidential candidates at an Iowa steak fry. But it’s false, as some versions of the e-mail said, that he “will NOT recite the Pledge of Allegiance nor will he show any reverence for our flag.” We debunked this and other legends about Obama early this year after receiving a rush of questions about them. Again, for the record, he is not a Muslim, his middle name is not Mohammed, and he placed his hand on a Bible when he was sworn into the Senate. And he puts his hand over his heart when he says the Pledge of Allegiance. We even have pictures to prove it.

Still, two months after we wrote that story, we continue to get messages from readers asking about his patriotism, his religion, his church and whether he’ll take the presidential oath with the Quran.

Often, the message itself includes major red flags that should alert readers that the author is not to be trusted. Here are just a few of what we’ll call Key Characteristics of Bogusness:

  • 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. Those popular messages about a Jay Leno essay and Andy Rooney’s political views are both baloney. And 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. We’ve examined three such emails in which the back-up material clearly debunks the e-mail itself. One message provided a link to the Tax Foundation, but anyone who followed it would have found an article saying the e-mail’s figures were all wrong. Another boasted that Snopes.com had verified the e-mail, but Snopes actually said it was false. Update, Nov. 19, 2014: Phishing attempts have become more sophisticated, so before you click on a hyperlink in the email make sure that it is in fact the correct URL and will bring you to the respected source you want.
  • 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. In fact, we’re developing another theory here: The more exclamation points used in an e-mail, the less true it actually is. (Ditto for excessive use of capital letters.)
  • 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.

We hope that by writing about some of these messages we can enlighten a few readers and arm some of them with ammunition against their e-mail-forwarding friends. But clearly our battle against the viral e-mail monster has just begun. Months after debunking a popular piece of rubbish about Nancy Pelosi’s plan to tax your retirement savings and give the revenue to illegal immigrants, we’re still getting questions about whether it could possibly be true. Let me repeat: It’s not.

In another item on a common falsehood (but not yet, as far as we know, an e-mail legend), we suggested that a reader try ridiculing his friends to dispel their apocryphal beliefs. And we were serious. If the cold hard truth – or even an ounce of common sense – isn’t an effective weapon in combating a bogus notion, what is?

It seems that no matter the facts, the desire to believe some of this stuff is just too strong. Emery, too, has come to believe that there’s not enough proof in the world to stop certain political propaganda. “I have come to the conclusion that especially where political rumors are concerned, most people are so locked into a particular world view that they tend to reject any information, no matter how well supported, that contradicts their cherished assumptions,” he says. “It’s scary, actually how polarized we have become.”

In a 2004 report on this topic, our director, Brooks Jackson, called for an end to the e-mail madness, saying, “This cyber-sickness should stop. All it takes is a little bit of common sense and skepticism, some curiosity and a few keystrokes. Nailing these lies can even be fun.”

Apparently, lots of Americans didn’t heed the call. If you don’t find checking out these e-mails to be fun, or just don’t have time, I suggest an easier alternative: a healthy use of the delete key.