Email is as much a part of our daily lives these days as the (land line) phone and television were a generation ago. Your BlackBerry buzzes and your email is instantly at your hip; blogs, websites, list servers, and forums abound. News travels warp drive fast through the wildfire ether of the “interweb.” And it's never too much farther away than the cell phone in your pocket or bag.
Real news and information mingles indiscriminately with half-truths, disinformation, exaggerations, conflations, and outright lies. The spread of false and damaging information grows epidemically faster than the debunkers and fact checkers can filter the shades of truth and reality. In its wake careers, political chances, the good names of people, and the truth itself lie in tatters.
An active member of the Jewish community, I received last month no fewer than 25 emails about Barack Obama, spreading lies as facts, and innuendo as confirmed information. Forwarded by friends and colleagues to warn recipients of the dangers of an Obama presidency to the Jewish community and to Israel, they originated elsewhere. I will not repeat here the nature of those rumors and falsehoods other than to say that they are simply wrong, spread maliciously, and cynically calculated by their originators to adversely affect Obama’s support within the Jewish community. What is more disturbing is that so may of the lies are easily refuted and verifiably wrong. But as they say, if you tell it often enough, a lie, no matter how blatantly wrong, becomes validated as “truth.”
Spreading rumors about candidates is not new. It is that dismal underbelly of campaign politics that reaches back through the generations. But the potency and speed of information traveling along those broadband pipelines grants easier access and greater voice to those who seek to abuse it — insinuation, innuendo, and lies all spreading virus-like into exponentially ever-expanding circles.
Just as the first barrage of emails began to slow to a trickle, a brand new version has begun to circulate within the community. These new anti-Obama emails have been forwarded to me by friends, who received them from someone else. I was one of 10 to 20 addressees on each email. And I guarantee that several of those 10 or 20 people will forward it to 10 more. And thus will it spread virus-like until it dies out. Or doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter that the statements in them are untrue. The anticipated damage will already have been done.
Again, the originators have clearly targeted Jewish voters intending, this time, to perpetuate innuendos and lies that had already been countered not just in the press, but had been decried as scurrilous and unfounded in widely-distributed open letters to the Jewish community from diverse groups of Jewish community leaders.
A letter signed by rabbis of every denomination as well as the leadership of several major Jewish organizations asserted that “these tactics attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion. We reject these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.”
Additionally, a prominent group of Jewish senators also expressed great concern about the epidemic of “anonymous” emails attacking Obama. “We find it particularly abhorrent that these attacks are apparently being sent specifically to the Jewish Community. Jews, who have historically been the target of such attack,” read a widely-widely distributed open letter from the senators.
As with any technology, we must learn to use the Internet wisely. In this closely contested race for the democratic nomination, and later in the fall, when the campaigns are sure to become ever more zealous and nasty, we must all become discriminating about the way in which we pass on supposed "facts" that find their way into our email boxes.
Always read with skepticism, calm down, check the facts, and then, if you must, (after re-reading with even more skepticism) pass it along. Remember that every email you forward will likely reach halfway around the planet earth within hours. Like feathers cast upon the wind, they are virtually irretrievable; unlike feathers, malicious disinformation can fly unfettered with potentially tragic results.