Photo by Getty


Fact-checking grandma

The internet is rife with myths, scams and hoaxes. When any claim can be checked out, why does fiction still trump fact?

by Lyz Lenz + BIO

Photo by Getty

My grandma believes that the President of the United States is trying to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from US currency. She has forwarded me three emails about the subject, each punctuated with a two-sentence commentary: ‘I can believe this! We live in a godless time!’

Like most patient grandchildren, I ignored the first two emails, chalking up her misplaced rage to the foibles of her age. After all, no one wants to fight with grandma. She is in her 80s and the daughter of Salvation Army missionaries, so she has Jesus on her side. But after the third email, I couldn’t take it anymore. I sent her a reply. ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ I wrote. ‘This is all a hoax.’ I included a link to a Snopes article debunking her fears.

‘I don’t care what that website thinks,’ my grandma wrote. ‘The point is, this could happen. Our Government is falling from God.’

This urban legend about a godless government removing ‘In God We Trust’ from US currency has been around for years. It has many iterations – from a redesigned paper currency to a new dollar that omits the phrase and, in my grandma’s case, to a legend that President Barack Obama was going to force the removal of ‘In God We Trust’ through executive order. The rumours seem to have sprung up in 2007, with anxiety over the designs of the new $5 bill. Or perhaps even earlier in 2002, when Michael Newdow from California sued the government on behalf of his daughter in order to remove the phrase ‘under God’ from the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

There is, however, some germ of truth in the story. In 2007, some newly released dollar coins were minted without the phrase. But this was a mistake, not some concerted effort by our Government to oppress God-fearing Americans. The most recent rumour about President Obama removing ‘In God We Trust’ from all currency finds its genesis in the satire site The National Report, which in December claimed that the President was making this move to reflect the fact that the number of people in the US who believe in God is on the decline. According to a 2013 Harris poll, 74 per cent of American adults believe in God, down from 82 per cent in 2009.

The article, though fake, has a ring of verisimilitude that sticks with my grandma – a conservative Christian – who still insists this could happen. And it bothers me that she believes it. Not just because her beliefs clash with my liberal values, but because they are based on lies. No US president now or in the near future will remove ‘In God We Trust’ from our currency. But what’s the point in fighting the many-headed hydras of internet lies? I’m not the only grandchild who has faced this dilemma. For centuries, people in history have insisted on believing lies because they reinforced cultural myths but, in the age of the internet, where the truth is within our grasp, why do these lies persist?

It might be tempting to write off my grandma’s mistakes as a foible of old age, but she is not alone. The web is rife with people of all ages taking a hoax, satire or something completely fabricated to be true. The Tumblr Literally Unbelievable hosts nothing but screen shots of people on Facebook taking at face value the joke news published by the satirical site The Onion. Four months ago, I decided to become a kind of truth avenger and fact-check every link, meme and news story that appeared on my Facebook feed by a family member, high-school friend or former sorority sister. I punctured the myth that there was a rampant feminist who made a class of six- and seven-year-olds cookies that looked like vaginas. I fact-checked a viral story about a woman with a third boob. And, of course, I knocked down the ubiquitous fake Facebook privacy statement. Without fail, each of my attempts was rebuffed, ignored or deleted by my Facebook friends. I even received a response from a friend who insisted that the yonic cookies could happen because ‘feminists are just that crazy’.

While some internet myths are ephemeral and silly, designed to make us laugh, others tap into our deeply held beliefs about society and culture. The fake Facebook privacy statement has staying power because it connects to our ambivalence about security and technology. In an article on Slate in December, Will Oremus lamented the fact that social media has become a conduit for sharing ‘hoaxes, lies and conspiracy theories’.

Oremus suggested that Facebook ought to tweak their algorithm so that viral untruths rank lower in the news feed than truths:

I ran this idea by Greg Marra, a Facebook news feed product manager, in a recent conversation about another of the company’s efforts to improve the quality of users’ feeds. He sounded vaguely intrigued, but said his team probably wouldn’t be making it a priority anytime soon. ‘We haven’t tried to do anything around objective truth,’ Marra mused. ‘It’s a complicated topic, and probably not the first thing we would bite off.’

I can understand Marra’s reluctance to police stories based on fact. Even in a society with ready access to fact-checking sources, what constitutes ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ is highly problematic. It shouldn’t surprise us that, even in this age of Google, myths remain, because these myths feed into a deeper truth that we believe about the world – that ‘radical feminists’ are so ridiculous they want kids to eat vagina cookie, that a woman is so harassed by men that she is forced to don a third boob to escape them, that our first black President is so ungodly that he will excise all symbols of Christianity from our country.

And it’s nothing new. In the early 18th century, Dublin was teeming with speculation that Grizell Steevens, a wealthy spinster, was a pig-faced lady. Rumours about pig-faced women date back to the 17th century and have never been credibly verified. They all follow a similar storyline: a rich single woman has everything – a lovely figure, clothes, money, jewels, servants – everything except beauty. In each of these tales, the woman desperately seeks a husband only to be turned away by even the lowliest of suitors.

Steevens was the daughter of a wealthy clergyman. After the death of her father and her twin brother, she inherited all the family wealth. A great philanthropist, Steevens was often seen around town in her carriage, while her servants handed out money to the poor. Because of a problem with her eyes, Steveens often wore a veil over her face. When her carriage passed by, children would oink and men would jump on the footboards to get a look at her, and newspapers published accounts from people who claimed to have seen her terrible porcine face.

Miss Steevens was deeply troubled by the rumours and often sat on her veranda and in front of open windows, so people could see her face. It didn’t help. Even after she died in 1747, visitors to the hospital she built were shown a silver trough, the supposed dining utensil of their benefactress. These stories, like most urban legends, have staying power because they tap into deeply held resentments about women, wealth and beauty.

In Russia, there was a similar myth about Catherine the Great, who was said to have died while having sex with a horse, an urban legend of such profound magnitude that it still exists. The truth is, Catherine died from a stroke. The legend, which some believe was disseminated by the French to discredit her, continues to be believed because of deeply held societal prejudices against strong, single women.

‘what they seemed to be after in these narratives was not unvarnished historical truth but some measure of meaning’

Similarly, blood libel is another enduring, pre-internet myth that feeds into deeply held prejudices. This is the belief that, around Passover, Jews kidnap a child and use the child’s blood in the Passover ceremony. Blood libel has been used as an excuse to murder and terrorise Jews for centuries, with the earliest examples of anti-Semitic violence recorded in Egypt in 40 BCE. It endures even today. In July 2014, a video surfaced of a Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdan, accusing Jews of killing non-Jewish children and using their blood to make matzo, the unleavened bread eaten by Jews at Passover.

Interestingly, in order to protect against blood libel, Jewish folklore disseminated its own urban legend about the Golem of Prague – a giant clay statue created and given life by the 16th century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect the Jews of Prague against anti-Semitism. The legend of the Golem of Prague is so enmeshed in the history of Prague’s Jews that separating fact from fiction, even now, is difficult. Oddly enough, in 1909 Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg published a book about the Golem. He said it was based on an old manuscript, but it is now recognised to be a hoax of his own making. Still, the legend, a symbol of rage, justice and frustration in the face of centuries of anti-Semitism, endures.

Of course, myth-making wasn’t just a European foible. On 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of US independence, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. The mythic passing of two of America’s founding fathers on Independence Day sparked what Mark Schantz describes in Awaiting the Heavenly Country (2008) as ‘an avalanche of eulogies and public reflection’. Eulogists frequently misquoted or just flat-out made up the last words of both Adams and Jefferson. Schantz writes: ‘Such factual discrepancies did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of listeners and readers – for what they seemed to be after in these narratives was not unvarnished historical truth but some measure of meaning.’

It would be easy to dismiss these stories as pre-internet age confusion. From the earliest days of history, our collective myths, stories and memes have been less about accessing the truth and more about creating a narrative for how to confront the perceived challenges of our world. But why hasn’t easy access to information solved this problem?

My sister has more than once shared a fake picture claiming that we have arrived at the date seen on the time-travelling DeLorean in the film Back to the Future (1985). My sister is a Millennial. She respects, and she knows how Google works. And yet, she has shared this picture multiple times, on different days. When I asked her why she perpetuates the scourge of misinformation, she just shrugged: ‘I don’t know, it’s a gut thing. You see something and you connect to it. Then, you just share.’

Perhaps, beneath my sister’s shrug is the deeper call of nostalgia. An older Millennial, she has children and is experiencing that all-too-familiar reality of the things that were novel to her being made new again to a younger generation. This nostalgia was recently made manifest by the advent of 2015, the actual year that Marty McFly journeyed to in the future in his DeLorean. This event sparked a series of viral articles, tweets and think-piece reflections on the impact of that movie and how the reality of the ‘future’ is so markedly different than even Hollywood could imagine.

People believe the stories that they connect to, the ones that affirm their view of the world, truth be damned

In 2012, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, both at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, analysed 7,000 articles from The New York Times to assess what made stories go viral. What they discovered was that stories which elicited strong emotion – both positive and negative – were the ones that got shared most often. People believe the stories that they connect to, the ones that affirm their view of the world, truth be damned. When I fact-checked my conspiracy-theory-loving brother-in-law, on a claim that the labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa’s body had been found, he spent the next two hours sending me links to internet forums of dubious repute to support his claim. Surely in his Googling he had come across sources that proved him wrong, but he ignored them, choosing instead to cling to the things that supported his beliefs.

In November, Rolling Stone magazine ran a story about the alleged rape of a woman named ‘Jackie’ at the University of Virginia. In response to the story, the university banned fraternities and sororities on campus and launched an investigation. Rolling Stone later retracted their story, noting that there were several inconsistencies with Jackie’s story and that, upon further investigation, they no longer believed her account of events.

In the ensuing scrum over the truth, the story has been twisted and retold to fit various narratives. There are the people who hold it up as an example of women ruining men with false rape accusations. For others, the story is a cautionary tale about the minefield of reporting a rape. But somewhere lost in the midst is a very real woman, who is receiving threats and having her privacy violated. The mad scramble for sides in the Rolling Stone example highlights the tensions of cognitive dissonance and the search for ‘truth’ in the internet age. Facts are at our fingertips, but instead of liberating us, they seem to become a casualty in the war of ideas. My husband has an aphorism that states: ‘If you Google long enough, anything becomes the truth.’

There is more at stake here than just ideology and truth. When Amanda Reith in Pennsylvania saw her daughter in a viral image, she felt outraged and upset. Reith’s daughter is now a healthy teenager but in 2007 she underwent treatment for stage IV neuroblastoma, and the image showed her aged seven, bald and smiling, in a cheerleading outfit and holding pom-poms. Reith had shared the picture in a community forum in 2009 and was later shocked to see the image being shared on Facebook with the message: ‘“Like” to show this little girl you care. “Share” to tell her she’s beautiful. Pray for her to beat cancer.’

Worse, the picture was being used to promote spam. Ostensibly, Facebook users were sharing and ‘liking’ the image to support a little girl with cancer. In reality the Facebook page that published the picture was using it to garner ‘likes’ with the intention of selling the page to someone else or using it to sell products. Reith told CNN that, while she was happy to help raise awareness for cancer, seeing her daughter’s picture shared as a hoax was painful. ‘What makes me truly angry, though, is knowing that they’re using it as an insidious way to make money,’ Rieth said. ‘That’s not what her survival is about to us.’

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), the novelist Milan Kundera wrote: ‘Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.’ And maybe that is what internet memes accomplish. They take the confusing pieces of the world and order them into a mosaic (or news feed) that makes sense to us. And instead of curing us of our myth-making, the internet has made this practice even easier, no matter what pain it might cause to others.