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Insidious forwarded political emails erode confidence in our democracy

Last week I received an email from a woman requesting that I discontinue sending corrections to false and misleading emails that she, a couple of dozen others and I routinely receive from a mutual acquaintance.

Last week I received an email from a woman requesting that I discontinue sending corrections to false and misleading emails that she, a couple of dozen others and I routinely receive from a mutual acquaintance. The last straw for her was my response to a missive about how residents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hit by a devastating blizzard, banded together to take care of each other, unlike inhabitants of New Orleans who whined, complained and demanded government assistance following Hurricane Katrina.

Among other emails I recently redressed were accounts of Nancy Pelosi’s private jet, Michelle Obama’s excessive and expensive personal staff, the Bank of America dropping FDIC insurance, President Obama not being a citizen of the United States, and a petition to deny religious broadcasters access to radio and television airwaves.

As much as I dislike reading these forwarded, mostly untruthful emails, I am compelled to respond and expose the falsehoods, risking opprobrium from the originators and other recipients who believe these stories, often claiming they are purposely ignored by mainstream media. My email correspondents are correct in this assertion, because mainstream media, mostly consisting of trained and seasoned journalists, do not usually report rumors as facts or embellish half-truths to further an agenda.

Debunking sites derided
Though the woman is the only one who has actively opted out of my emendations, I’ve received replies to several others that claim urban-legend debunking sites Snopes.com and TruthorFiction.com hold liberal biases. According to these respondents, the chief rumor squelchers — because they don’t uphold the canards many prefer to believe — are ensconced in the enemy’s camp.

Some emailers appear to represent a large number of citizens who believe what they believe because they choose to believe it, heedless of veracity. They hit “Forward” because their particular worldview is confirmed by the message.

I maintain this fairly recent phenomenon is attributable to our Internet-beset culture, and the concomitant decline of both newspaper readers and viewers of network news programs. Now we can instantly access news with the slant of our choosing without filters or accountability. If our source presents something with which we agree, supported by anecdotes, and the issue is persuasively articulated, it must be true. So, many of us keep the matter circulating by forwarding the email to everyone in our address book.

Half-truths perpetuated
But doing so erodes confidence in our democracy because lies and half-truths are perpetuated. Among them is that many government officials deliberately deceive and insult average Americans. The insidiousness of such forwarded emails generates belief in what appears credible, and when the point is repeated often enough, it evolves into a perceived truth, with the actual truth seen as an impediment to what one “feels” to be correct.

Consequently, many of us who are bombarded with politically charged emails may come to rely on their content, to the exclusion of more reasoned argument or discourse.

The plethora of untruthful, sometimes malicious emails has added yet another layer between Americans and our ability or willingness to grapple with the complicated and thorny issues confronting us. These messages seldom shed light on issues, but nearly always generate intense heat.

Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” “The Man From Lake Wobegon” and other books.