by Larry Smith
Frankly, I am sick and tired of all those forwarded emails peddling scams, lies and hate propaganda.
This irksome correspondence used to derive mostly from unsophisticated internet users who thought they were doing their friends and relatives a favour by sending a useful safety tip or an interesting take on the news. But now it seems almost everyone is getting into the act - even well-educated and otherwise level-headed folks - and the information they are peddling grows more outrageous by the day.
Why is this? Well, as one blogger put it recently, "these forwards are not just a way of spreading an idea efficiently, they are a way of getting people to commit to the idea, or deepen their commitment, by the very act of forwarding it. This is a dangerous practice in a democracy: getting people to commit to ideas and beliefs which may be false, without any regard to the actual evidence."
The most egregious recent example came from a lawyer friend, and it had already been forwarded by several other Bahamian lawyers as a cautionary word to the wise. The email featured a link to a video, which purported to show the former health minister of Finland, Dr Rauni Kilde, warning that the swine flu vaccine is actually a bio-weapon intended to cripple the immune system for purposes of population control.
"It's not the swine flu that's dangerous, it's the injections," Kilde says in a thick scandinavian accent. "Behind the whole thing is to diminish the population, because it's toxic, and to get millions and millions into their own pocket by using scary propaganda. The World Health Organisation has ordered that everybody, by force, has to be injected. The figures released by the WHO are all false. They have been forced to do this by Big Pharma. The target is to get rid of as many people as possible and to get as much money as possible."
Well those seem to be two contradictory goals to me, since I assume that drug companies can't make much money from dead people. But Kilde does have a background of sorts. She was apparently a provincial medical officer in Lapland until injuries she received in a car accident in 1987 forced her to retire. Since then she has described herself as a "ufologist" and has alleged that world governments are implanting microchips in our brains to control behaviour.
"Are we ready for the robotization of mankind and the total elimination of privacy, including freedom of thought?" she asks in one essay. "How many of us would want to cede our entire life, including our most secret thoughts, to Big Brother? Yet the technology exists to create a totalitarian New World Order."
If you google her name, Kilde turns up on a wide variety of fringe, new age, libertarian and conspiracy websites. She has also been featured on slightly less crazy right wing websites - like the Massachusetts Liberty Preservation Association and Patrick Buchanan.org - although in some cases her videos have since been removed.
The attitude of most of the folks that run these websites is that the rest of us are insane for believing the lies of Big Medicine and Big Government.
In fact there is a big movement afoot to warn people about the dangers of the swine flu vaccine and the effort by world governments to force it on us. These warnings come in several forms, some more extreme than others. One of the more innocuous was sent to me recently by a local friend. It takes the form of a pseudo-scientific medical advisory from a "bachelor of pharmacy" at the University of South Australia who was top of his class at school.
"If the regular flu kills 40,000-plus per year, and the swine flu only killed 2-3,000," the pharmacist asks knowingly, "then why are governments buying it in advance, giving it to us for free, and giving drug manufacturers immunity to legal cases against them? Does that make sense? No. This stuff is poison."
Of course, such dire health warnings are frequently wrapped up in ridiculous rightwing accusations that "the government" is seeking to destroy our freedoms and force us to take harmful drugs. And the effectiveness of this scare-mongering was confirmed over the weekend when a CNN poll reported that more than half of Americans don't want the H1N1 vaccine because they believe it's unsafe.
This is despite the fact that this vaccine is no different from the seasonal flu shot, which has been administered to hundreds of millions of people and raises no objection. The two vaccines are produced in exactly the same way and have the same potential - but rare - risks. And the vaccinations are not mandatory in the US or in other countries, although some hospitals and localities may require healthcare workers to take the shots, for obvious reasons.
In order to avoid being fooled by this nonsense, just do this: Never believe anything, especially forwards, that you receive in your e-mail inbox. Most of these messages are untrue. And you will not get bad luck for 100 years if you delete the message before forwarding it to all of your friends.
Anyone can post anything on the internet, but when making important decisions regarding your health and the health of your loved ones, who would you rather consult - some crazy website or your family doctor? Let me put it another way, would you google 'pufferfish', then watch a youtube video on how to prepare this deadly poisonous fish, then trust the information enough to cook it and serve it to your children?
The important thing to know is that when you google something, the search results that come up first are based on the number of hits they receive, not on how reliable the content is. For example, just because the first site that pops up when you google “H1N1 vaccine ingredients” tells you that it contains formaldehyde, live monkey virus, mercury and tissues from aborted babies does not mean it is true.
Also, please remember that anyone can sign any name at the bottom of an e-mail and there is no way to track this back. For example, I could write a message telling everyone that eating macaroni and cheese dipped in crab fat will give you immunity from swine flu. Then I could sign it 'Dr Hubert Minnis' and include a list of his credentials. But it doesn't mean the advice is true. In fact, the falsehoods being spread about the H1N1 vaccine are much more dangerous than any potential side effect from the vaccine itself, since they encourage the credulous to ignore good medical advice.
That brings me to my second example - a political chain email I received recently from a close family member that concerned US President Barack Obama (who else?). But before I get to that, have you noticed that most of the insulting trashy propaganda and hate mails circulating around the internet come from the American political right, with a large majority directed at Obama? I can't recall getting any emails that denigrate the right wing or social conservatives in the same fanatical way. It's tempting to think that moderates and liberals are more likely to question the validity of such crazy emails.
Now back to the Obama email, which first appeared around the time of the presidential election. It purported to be a message from liberal historian David Kaiser, and it compared Obama to Adolf Hitler. The email is, of course, a forgery, but it presents a litany of familiar ultra conservative themes that boil all our problems down to one man - Barack Obama - who will destroy the constitution and reshape America in the same way that Hitler transformed Germany. This message has been traced to a rightwing blog by Pat Dollard, called The War Starts Here.
I don't understand how otherwise intelligent and well-meaning folks can distribute such messages or be taken in by them so easily. The way to avoid that is to use critical thinking. And claims about huge conspiracies are the first thing to look out for.
The American political system is simply too big and there are too many checks and balances for a handful of Obama supporters to be able to stage a secret communist coup. Likewise, it would have been impossible for a select few in the Bush administration to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks. And the world is an even bigger place, so please be skeptical when emails tell you that one group or another is secretly pulling all the strings.
Here are a few other simple ways to identify internet hoaxes: If an email villifies political enemies or uses religion to make political or social points; if you are directed to send an email to everyone in your address book urgently; if an email offers no specific facts that can be easily checked; if an email presents sensational or frightening stories, or appeals to your worst fears; or promises goods or money, or if the message sounds like special insider information.
These are all clear signs that you are being taken for a fool.