Saturday, June 21, 2008

How rumors get started

Favorite questions: How do you know? Where did you get that information? Can you send me that link? May, May, Ms. May, such a curious mind in every sense. I want to know. I want to understand. I want to know the truth.

Truth. There are so many things that start as a misunderstanding, a comment made in jest, or simply as someone's attempt at being mean. It seems plausible; let's run with it. Why do people believe everything they hear? Are we that gullible as a culture or just as a species?

Last year, I changed my email address because I couldn't stand the influx of total crap cramming my inbox. Most of what people honestly believed were dire warnings, prayer requests (wow-wrong number here), and fascinating stories or pictures were, in fact, nothing more than urban legends. It was some nonsense somebody made up, then somebody else took out of context and passed along to someone who shortened it to just the lurid part and sent it on to 200 of her closest friends. When I changed my email address, I gave the new one to only five people. I sent it with a warning stating that at the first chain letter, cloying moral tale, or heavily Photoshopped picture, the offender's name would be blocked from my inbox. I have actually done followed through on this.

Whatever happened to critical thinking? Fact verification? While composing haiku late last night, I needed to find celebrity bipolar patients whose names had the right number of syllables to fit into my poem. What I found was a handful of names where the person had actually announced his or her bipolar disorder and done so in a reputable publication. The other 30-40 names go in a loop. that is, if you Google the name and the word bipolar, you get a lot of conjecture and people quoting Websites that originally all quoted the same undocumented list.

Cheri Oteri has bipolar disorder? Where and when did she publicly admit that? Beethoven? Did he complete the Mini-Mental Evaluation? Any other assessment? How about Abe Lincoln? Peter Gabriel? Tim Burton? I could not find any Empirical evidence--no reputable place of origin for the claims made about them. People are quoting other people, but nobody has a real source.

On the other hand, if you look around, it's easy to find out that Jean-Claude VanDam does, indeed, have BP and says he takes lithium to manage the disorder. Jane Pauley, Sinead O'Connor, and Ben Stiller have spoken publicly about it--there are actual records.

I tried to train my family and former friends to use sites like, the urban legends pages at, and Google, but all to no avail. I guess it's easier to just believe and forward. Hear a rumor, spread the rumor...Have thinking and verifying gone so out of style?

Whatever it is you want the world to believe, just put it on the Internet and it will be accepted as truth. So easy and yet so revealing about mass stupidity.

The result? Masses of information-consuming, critical-thinking-eschewing idiots start rumors based on a willingness to believe and nothing more.


Anonymous said...

Naturally, I have another movie to recommend for you: Idiocracy.

I've sent the Snopes url to the same friend at least 4 times. I didn't need chain mail to tell me not to leave my baby in an unattended shopping cart in Costco.

May Voirrey said...

My husband pointed out that if you say "9/11" and "Al Queda" frequently enough and in combination with other "hot" words, you can even get a war funded. It's not like anybody's going to check--or even remember the facts as they originally happened, for that matter. Oy, this makes me crazy. Crazier.