By: Brent Parrish
One of the great things about the internet is the plethora of knowledge we have available at our fingertips. Of course, the quality of information and data available to us now runs the gamut—from excellent to beyond horrific. So, naturally, one must must practice a bit of skepticism and caution when dealing with information and data obtained and retrieved online.
I’ve been meaning to write this article ever since the Boston Marathon bombing . So let’s rewind a bit. There were some initial reports on April 15, 2013, being circulated on social media and “new media,” (i.e. blogs and websites) immediately following the Boston bombing “confirming” the identity of one of the terrorist bombers as Sunil Tripathi. At the time, the 22-year-old Brown University student had been missing since March 15, 2013.
There were several well-trafficked blogs at the time of the bombing whose headlines read something akin to “Confirmed: Identity of Bomber Discovered,” listing Sunil Tripathi as the culprit. Well, as we now know, Sunhil Tripathi had nothing to do with the Boston Bombing. (Interestingly, Sunil’s body was pulled from the water near India Point Park in Rhode Island on April 25, just days after the Boston Bombing.)
I did study journalism in college years ago for about three years before switching my major to computer science, and one thing that was beaten into our heads was the use of the words “allegedly” and “alleged.” Remember, there is such a thing as libel, slandering someone in print. From what I understand, libel cases are hard to win in court. But do you really want to have to find out?
For example, if I see report that so-and-so has committed a crime, but that individual has not been convicted of a crime, and I report so-and-so has indeed committed a crime, then I’m potentially guilty of making libelous statements. But, if I report, “sources close to our investigation claim that so-and-so is alleged to have committed a crime,” then I’m avoiding libelous territory. Just ask any journalism student about the word “alleged.” They’ll probably chuckle—and with good reason. It was more than likely beaten into their heads.
This is why it is so important, in my opinion, to separate reporting from editorializing. Unfortunately, so much of what passes as “journalism” in the main-stream media is really nothing more than advocacy masquerading as journalism, i.e. opinionating. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an opinion/editorial (OP/ED). But reporting is simply the who, what, why, where, when and how, minus the editorializing. Something that is quite rare these days, if not non-existent.
Which brings me back to the Boston Bombing. In such a chaotic and fluid event like the Boston Bombing, reports and claims will be flooding in from multiple sources—some trustworthy, some not, some unknown. A good rule is just “don’t trust the first four reports” during a chaotic and catastrophic news event. Of course, this isn’t a hard-n-fast rule written in stone. But I hope you get the picture. Approaching a breaking story tentatively with words like “allegedly,” “reportedly,” “according to,” etc., is essential to maintaining credibility and avoiding the trap of promoting false claims.
Now, I’m not trying to make this a dissertation on journalism, per se. I’m simply trying to point out common pitfalls that one must beware of when putting on the hat of “citizen journalist.” There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation I see people on both sides of the political spectrum disseminating on the internet. Some people simply don’t realize they’re forwarding false information, while others obviously have more nefarious and devious motives.
And don’t get me wrong. We all have feet made of clay. There have certainly been times I’ve had to post corrections or retractions because I posted something floating around the “interwebs” that ended up being bunk, or, at the very least, not altogether true. I just try not to make a habit of it. Besides, I find if you use your favorite search engine, you can usually debunk a lot of questionable stuff in a matter of minutes. But, not always. Once again, approaching such things tentatively pays off in the long run.
If there are three things I’ve learned about blogging and writing over the past few years, it would be: 1.) don’t trust any chain email; 2.) beware of photo-shopped images; 3.) check every quote. I see more people get bamboozled by these three things than anything else. I, too, have been sucked in a few times. So, I’ll deal with each one separately, and provide concrete examples.
RULE #1: Don’t trust any chain email!
What’s a chain email, you ask? It’s an email being sent to numerous recipients you might receive from a family member, friend, associate, a site you subscribed to, what have you, that is making extraordinary claims. A fictitious example might be: “Our anonymous DHS insider has revealed Russian Spetsnaz troops will drop from the sky on Friday in your backyard! … WE HAVE PROOF! … See Section 8!!!!” Granted, I’m using a rather imaginative and hyperbolic example to make a point. My point being—sometimes, it should just be obvious that we’re not dealing with a full deck.
Now for a real-life example. A little while back a chain email was making its way around claiming Barack Obama had signed “923 Executive Orders in 40 months,” and martial law was imminent. Well, with a little fact-checking, this is demonstrably false. From a quick search, according the The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama has signed 183 Executive Orders. (In contrast, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed 3,522 Executive Orders during his four consecutive terms in office, by the way.) But this executive order hoax made it to some popular conservative blogs at the time.
There are numerous email hoaxes, too many to list here. Exercise caution. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every chain email from a family member, friend or colleague, can’t be trusted. I’m just saying be skeptical and practice some common sense. Check it out for yourself. Do your own research. And don’t forget to check the “fact-checkers.”
RULE #2: Beware of Photo-shopped images!
Recently I posted an image that was making its way around social media about an alleged white UN vehicle emblazoned with “Weapons Enforcement.” It didn’t take long to discover that it was a Photoshop creation, and a bad one at that. As a matter of fact, a guy even made a video about the hoax citing an article I wrote as reference. (See here). I’m still seeing this image circulated as fact.
Another Photoshop creation that I’ve seen posted on Twitter as of late is the Obama’s using their left hands to salute the flag (see top photo below). This is very simple trick to employ using a graphics editing program like Photoshop—simply flip the horizontal perspective (mirror image).
Here’s one I got burned on. Margaret Sanger, allegedly speaking before a Klu Klux Klan rally. The image of Sanger standing on the table addressing KKK members is fake. Although Margaret Sanger did speak at a KKK rally in Silverlake, New Jersey, in 1926. I’m not aware of any photos from the 1926 KKK rally in New Jersey, though.
Some photoshops can appear quite convincing. There were a number of fanciful images going viral after Hurricane Sandy, such as the conceptual image of a scuba diver exploring a flooded subway in Times Square, Manhattan; it even duped some in the main-stream press.
And while we’re on the subject of manipulated images … beware of images that are taken completely out of context. A good example of this would be the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel. There have been some images going around lately of dead and injured children that were, in reality, photos taken from the Syrian conflict.
Here’s another example of an image I see making the rounds on a regular basis. This graphic and horrific photo is allegedly of Christians burnt alive by the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria. But from my research, it appears the image was actually the charred remains of victims from a 2010 tanker fire that occurred in Sange, in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. I really don’t understand why people would link this image with Boko Haram, since there are so many real-life examples of Boko Haram’s extreme violence and barbarism.
RULE #3: Check every quote!
I saved the best for last. The biggest pitfall in all of writing, in my humble opinion, is misattributed quotes or quotations. I can’t begin to stress this enough. If there’s one thing I’ve been burned on more than anything else, it’s quotes. So I always take the time to check out quotes thoroughly. If you can’t verify the source of a quote, then state as much.
Here’s a quote often attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin:
“First, we will take Eastern Europe, then the masses of Asia, then we will encircle the United States which will be the last bastion of capitalism. We will not have to attack. It will fall like an overripe fruit into our hands.”
First, nowhere in any of Lenin’s works or writings does this quote appear. He simply didn’t say it. Furthermore, the last two sentences of this quote are often attributed to Nikita Kruschev. Also false. Interestingly, the “quote” accurately describes long-range Soviet strategy, in my opinion. But the alleged quote is not from Lenin or Kruschev.
The following alleged quote by Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin often makes the rounds on social media and appears to have originated from a satirical website:
“Any fourth grade history student knows socialism has failed in every country, at every time in history. President Obama and his Democrats are either idiots or deliberately trying to destroy their own economy.”
But we just needed a little Web sleuthing to confirm that the original source of the [Putin] quote was a blog post in February 2009, on a site called Scooter’s Report. It was part of a short article titled, “Putin: Obama ‘Idiot’ For Adopting Socialism.”
The people distributing Putin’s alleged quote didn’t bother to look at a disclaimer on Scooter’s Report that says: “Like I have to tell you. This is fictitious satire and any resemblance to persons, places, or events is coincidental.”
I have not been able to find any source that links the quote to Putin. I’ll have to agree with Politifact on this one.
Here’s a quote allegedly from Sun Tzu that I mistakenly used a few times:
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
This quote does not appear anywhere in Sun Tzu’s military treatise The Art of War. It is not even an accurate amalgamation of the maxims contained in the book. Not even the context of the alleged quote would be considered correct, at least according to Sun Tzu experts I’ve spoken with. One only need read The Art of War by Sun Tzu to discover this quote is nowhere to be found.
Here’s a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson that is often cited:
“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
According to the Thomas Jefferson website, Monticello.org, my emphasis:
This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson’s comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, —the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.'”
Another quote I had used a few times in the past was attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
This quote cannot be found anywhere in Franklin’s writings. Some claim it might be from James Bovard’s book Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994). I first stumbled across the quote in a national magazine during the early-mid 90’s.
So, it just shows how important it is to check the veracity of quotes, photos, and extraordinary claims sans extraordinary proof, regardless of the source.
In closing, I think the internet is a fantastic tool for providing numerous options for news sources and information. But, as always, “consider the source.”