One of the earliest games we played in Sunday School was “Gossip.” Maybe you played it too. The teacher lined all the children in single file and whispered a message into the ear of the child at one end of the line. That child was to whisper the message into the ear of the next child, and so it went, down the line. Finally, the last child said out loud the message she heard in her ear, and the first child repeated the message the teacher said at the beginning.
The final message rarely resembled the first. The teacher always made a point about the danger of gossiping, illustrating how a simple statement could get distorted beyond recognition within just a few repetitions.
Unfortunately, technology has multiplied this childhood game to global proportions. The Internet enables gossips, slanderers, misinformers and sowers of discord to spread their mind-twisting messages into virtually every hamlet on the planet. And it’s no longer a game.
Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, illustrated this phenomenon in a recent dispatch from Indonesia. He learned an alarming number of Muslims there have decided they must volunteer to join the Arab-Israel conflict. They also must fight against Jews and Christians worldwide who, they believe, are intent on killing them. These misguided and malevolent ideas come from the Internet, he said, quoting an Indonesian source: “They took for granted that anything they learned on the Internet is true. They believed in a Jewish conspiracy and that 4,000 Jews were warned not to come to work at the WorldTradeCenter (on Sept. 11). It was the Internet.”
“At its best, the Internet can educate more people faster than any media tool we’ve ever had. At its worst, it can make people dumber faster than any media tool we’ve ever had,” Friedman said. “Because the Internet has an aura of ‘technology’ surrounding it, the uneducated believe information from it even more. They don’t realize that the Internet, at its ugliest, is just an open sewer—an electronic conduit for untreated, unfiltered information.”
Today, anybody with a computer and a modem can spread messages around the world, with no documentation and no “let the reader beware” warning of any kind. Previously, media was regulated to some degree. A third-party publisher or broadcaster had to be willing to disseminate a message to a mass audience, understanding the liability that accompanies such a responsibility. Now, everyone with Internet access can be a self-styled publisher or freelance broadcaster with an unlimited audience. This is a blessing when truth is trumpeted. It is a curse when untruth is unleashed.
Lest we think this only afflicts unbelievers on the other side of the world, we need look no further than two of Christendom’s biggest hoaxes. The oft-recycled rumors that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was trying to get religion thrown off the airways and that the president of Procter & Gamble is a Satanist had just about died. Then along came the Internet, and the rumors escalated beyond previous levels. The gullible, the frightened and the truly concerned could hit the “forward” button on their e-mail controls and send the rumor of choice into the mailboxes of scores of friends and family. You don’t have to be good at multiplication to figure how these Internet and e-mail rumors could spread faster than a prairie fire fanned by a hot August wind. (For the record: Madalyn Murray O’Hair is dead and can’t petition the Federal Communications Commission for anything. And Procter & Gamble will sue rumormongers who spread the Satanism libel.)
Christians, of all people, have a vested interest in discerning truth from falsehood. We proclaim that Jesus is the ultimate Truth. But we undermine the credibility of our witness if we participate in spreading falsehood or unfounded rumors. We need to remember that just because we received a message on the Internet or received information in an e-mail from a friend, it may not be true.
We need to apply the same laws of discernment to Internet or e-mail messages that we would to other information we receive:
- Is it logical? Does it even make sense?
- Conversely, does it sound too good to be true? You know what your mother said about believing things that sound too good to be true.
- Does the message cite reliable sources? These could include verifiable experts whose knowledge is documented by training, experience and affiliation with credible organizations, as well as eyewitnesses, reputable reporters, non-partisan leaders and credible people who do not have a stake in distorting information.
- Can you back it up? If you’re reading from the Internet or e-mail and have Internet access, you have the resources to research the claim literally at your fingertips. Type some key words into a search engine, and see what you find. If it sounds like a rumor, visit “urban legends” verification sites, such as www.urbanlegends.about.com or www.snopes.com, to check the facts.
- Do you know someone who would know the truth? Pick up the phone, send an e-mail or write a letter and ask for the facts.
The truth is too easy to uncover to continue to live in darkness. Don’t take Internet and e-mail messages at face value. After all, “Gossip” is a dangerous game.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.
Marv Knox is coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network.