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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Viral Spiral of 2010

Yet another year full of bogus chain e-mails.


There’s a reason they call chain e-mails "viral" — their transmission is swift, extensive and very hard to stop. They tend to contain indignant, outraged messages that are nearly always false and often malicious. We can’t say exactly which virus these nasty messages resemble, but it isn’t one whose effects go away on their own while you drink plenty of fluids.

In 2010 we continued to see new outbreaks of viruses that we first refuted years ago. And in addition, there were a large number of new infections. Despite what you may have been told:

  • It’s not true that the White House is planning to tax all credit card transactions.
  • Muslims are not being exempted from the new health care law.
  • President Obama did not order up a private jet for the family’s pet dog, Bo.
  • Speaker Pelosi’s spending for liquor on congressional trips isn’t notably different than that of her predecessor. And Pelosi herself doesn’t even drink alcohol.
  • The new health care law does not contain a 3.8 percent "sales tax" on the sale of all personal residences.
  • Obama did not cancel the National Day of Prayer nor did he participate in a Muslim prayer event at the Capitol.

Here are this year’s most virulent and pestilential inbox-busters.


Ever since we first launched in late 2003, we’ve been fielding questions from our readers about anonymous e-mails that travel from inbox to inbox like some kind of plague. We get so many that we launched our Ask FactCheck feature three years ago. In 2008 we advised readers: "Assume all such messages are wrong, and you’ll be right most of the time." That advice still holds in 2010.

Some of this disinformation has proven to be impossible to eradicate. The very first viral e-mail we handled in an Ask FactCheck claimed that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was trying to institute a windfall tax on retirement income. Everything in the message, from the claim to the quotes, was a full-on fabrication, and we said so in December 2007. And yet, we were still being asked about this bogus claim as recently as September 22, 2010. 

Sometimes these viral claims come from liberals maligning conservatives, as when President Bush was falsely accused in 2004 of wanting to bring back military conscription, or when Sarah Palin was falsely accused in 2008 of banning a long list of books from the Wasilla library, a list that included some books that had not even been published at the time. But most of the false claims we are asked about are authored by people attacking Democrats and liberals. We don’t know why.

Still Sliming

A look at our inbox shows that the urge to slime President Barack Obama hasn’t really diminished since the 2008 campaign. Then, we dealt with false claims that he wouldn’t put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance; now, we have seen doctored photos purporting to show him using the wrong hand. Then, we had claims that he was a Muslim; now, we hear false reports that he canceled the National Day of Prayer but allowed a Muslim celebration to go forward, and complaints that he undermined national security by appointing "devout" Muslims to Homeland Security posts — as though religious devotion were evidence of terrorist sympathies. Then, people doubted the birth certificate image his campaign provided; now, they circulate bogus claims about court actions demanding his birth records. Then, he ate arugula; now, e-mails claim (falsely) that he flies his dog around on a private jet. (That one started with a misinterpreted newspaper report that was quickly clarified by the paper, but the tale of the flying dog wags on in cyberspace.)

Obama has been joined in the stocks by Nancy Pelosi. This year, Pelosi’s drink tab was a major topic of discussion — e-mails claimed that she spent more than $100,000 of public money on food and alcohol on congressional delegations. We found that to be an exaggeration, and records showed that her travel expenses, though high, were equivalent to former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s. (Also, Pelosi doesn’t drink alcohol.) We debunked a similar claim about Pelosi’s plane travel from the same group, Judicial Watch, two years ago. But that didn’t stop people from passing this one on.

No-Facts Tax

Perhaps the most-forwarded falsehood of all is a claim that "President Obama’s finance team" is planning to institute a 1 percent tax on all bank transactions. According to the e-mail, Obama and Pelosi plan to "sneak in" legislation instituting a tax on all bank transfers and deposits.

In fact, there are no plans for such a tax. A bill exists, but it has no support from Obama or Pelosi, or indeed anyone else (it has zero cosponsors). Rather, it’s the quixotic campaign of a single Democratic congressman, who has been trying since 2004 to get the federal income tax replaced with a 1 percent tax on bank transactions. The current version of the bill is stalled in committee, and there’s no reason to believe it will do any better than the 2004, 2005, 2007 or 2009 versions, none of which garnered support despite the fact that they only called for studying the feasibility of replacing the income tax with a transaction tax.

But that hasn’t stopped this bogus message from becoming the very top-rated item on a list of the "25 Hottest Urban Legends" kept by our partners in probity at Snopes.com. The message was No. 1 on Snopes’ Dec. 20 list of most-circulated rumors, beating out not only all other political rumors but also chain e-mails about bedbugs, phone scams, food safety threats and computer viruses. We also received scads of worried queries about it and have included it on our own list of hottest topics, but we don’t attempt to assign rankings.

Home Sales Hooey

Also making both our list and the Snopes top 25: a claim that the health care law would impose a 3.8 percent tax on all home sales. This e-mail rumor sparked a flurry of panicked inquiries from our readers, who wanted to know whether it was safe for them to go on the housing market. "IF YOU SELL YOUR $400,000 HOME, THIS WILL BE A $15,200 TAX," the e-mail trumpeted. (Caps lock is a popular key among anonymous e-mail writers, who seem to have excitable left pinkies.) Actually, the tax on the sale of just about any $400,000 home would be exactly zero.

There is a new tax — the message is not a wholesale fabrication, like Pelosi’s windfall tax. But contrary to the example given in the message, the tax only applies to people who make more than $200,000 a year (or $250,000 for joint filers). Furthermore, the tax only applies to profits — not the selling price. And it only falls on those profits that exceed $250,000 ($500,000 for a couple) for primary residences. The tax would be applied to all profits on vacation homes of those upper-income earners. Still, the Tax Foundation estimated that this tax would apply to about 2 percent of families.

Our readers also worried about an e-mail claiming that they would not be able to put their homes on the market without an energy-efficiency license, which would require expensive modifications retrofitting homes to new efficiency requirements. In fact, the requirements would only have applied to newly built homes, and would not have required changes to existing homes. And even that requirement did not take effect. It was part of the cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the House, only to die in the Senate.

National Day of Prayer

The virulence of false e-rumors was demonstrated by one puzzled reader who sent us this query: 

Did President Obama cancel the National Day of Prayer? I attended it, so I didn’t think it was canceled, but I received an email saying it was. 

Even firsthand experience of the Day of Prayer celebrations wasn’t enough to stop this person from wondering whether the rumor was true. The claim harkened back to other pernicious claims about Obama’s religion. Even after Obama’s official declaration of May 6 as the National Day of Prayer — and for months after the day occurred — we continued to get e-mails claiming that the president was calling it off. We’re still getting them.

In fact, the National Day of Prayer went forward as scheduled. It was in jeopardy this year, but the threat didn’t come from the Obama administration — in fact, quite the opposite. On April 15, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled that the law establishing the day was unconstitutional. On April 22, Obama and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs filed a notice of appeal to the ruling, and the administration is still in court fighting to uphold the law establishing the national event.

Parenting for Profit

E-mail rumors are like Whac-A-Moles — push one down in one place and it pops up in another. In May, we debunked an entirely fictitious e-mail about an illegal immigrant mom in Florida, who (according to the message’s erroneous claims) got $1,500 a month from the state for each of her eight "anchor babies." That’s just not possible — it’s way over the maximum that Florida law allows, for one thing. We thought we’d put that one to bed, but it must have thrown off the covers and scooted across the country. Later in the year, we started seeing an eerily similar message about a grandma in Illinois. This one wasn’t an immigrant, just a child profiteer — she’d taken in eight foster children, and also got the mythical sum of $1,500 a month for each. That’s also legally impossible — Illinois has restrictions not only on the amount of child care aid a family can receive from the state, but also on the number of foster children allowed in a single household. But the facts didn’t stop people from being outraged by these false claims, which play on xenophobia and class prejudices.

Congress and COLA

"SEND THE MESSAGE– You’re FIRED" enjoins this e-mail (there’s that caps lock again). Its anonymous author reminds recipients that "IN 2010 YOU WILL HAVE A CHANCE TO GET RID OF THE SITTING CONGRESS," and encourages them to do so. We’re all for exercising voting rights, though we prefer using lowercase. But this e-mail calls for members of Congress to be ousted based on spurious information.

First, the message claims that "U.S. House & Senate have voted themselves $4,700 and $5,300 raises" for 2010. That’s entirely made up. In fact, Congress voted to freeze members’ pay for 2010 and 2011, so they are not getting even scheduled, automatic increases.

The rest of the e-mail isn’t any better. The anonymous author goes on to say that Congress "voted to not give you a S.S. Cost of living raise in 2010 and 2011." There was no such vote. Social Security cost of living increases are based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which declined during the relevant periods after producing an unusually large 5.8 percent increase in 2008. That’s an automatic adjustment, not the result of any action by the current Congress. The e-mail also alleges a Medicaid premium increase, but Congress doesn’t set Medicaid premiums — states do that. (If the author meant Medicare, that’s still wrong — only a relatively few, high-income seniors will see any increase.) 

A Clean Bill of Health?

The health care bill was probably the most popular subject of false rumors this year, both before and after it passed in March. One e-mail alleged that Muslims would be exempt from the new health care rules because insurance is banned by the Islamic faith. Neither part is true. Plenty of observant Muslims have health insurance. And while the health care law does allow for certain religious exemptions, it uses an existing standard for determining eligibility, and no Muslim or other non-Christian group has ever qualified for a legal exemption under that standard.

Another e-mail begins: "Were you aware of the fact that the health care bill created a civilian army?" Well, we weren’t, because it didn’t. What it did was establish a "Ready Reserve Corps" of medical professionals who can be called for service in public health crises. Not exactly "Nazi Germany all over again," as the e-mail alleges.

Still Kicking

If there’s one thing e-mail rumor-mongers don’t worry about, it’s being last year’s news. Here’s a sampling of false claims still blowing up our readers’ inboxes, a year or more after we found them to be egregiously false:

  • ACLU and cemetery crosses. The e-mail claims that the ACLU has filed a suit to ban crosses from military graves. That’s a total fabrication.
  • Obama and "whiny" veterans. This chain e-mail includes a "quote" from Obama decrying veterans who "whine about bearing the costs of their choice" to serve. The quote is made up from whole cloth.
  • Obama’s fictional Fulbright. This e-mail’s claim, that Obama cannot be a U.S. citizen because he attended college on a scholarship reserved for foreign students, was originally intended as a joke. Nothing in the message is true.
  • Obama and the National Anthem. This one was also meant to be funny. The e-mail fabricates a quote from Obama on the National Anthem’s "warlike message." He never said it.

— by Jess Henig