Truth, Rhetoric, and Email Propaganda
If the ground of democracy is truth, the ground of dictatorship is assertion. In a dictatorship, reality belongs to whoever has the greatest power to assert.
SOMETIME AGO, I suggested that a friend might check out an email he had received by going to Snopes.com.
A few months later the same friend forwarded me another email, this one about Snopes. It made a very convincing case, from a certain point of view, that Snopes was not to be trusted.
As I read this email, I was struck by how mundane, yet important, the struggle over values is, in our national soul.
As some of you will recall, Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham have uncovered five psychological foundations of morality: care, fairness, loyalty, respect, and purity.
But there's a fundamental human value which does not appear on that list.
I don't know whether that's because it's relatively new on the scene, or whether their research has just missed it, but I think it's key to the struggle over values that our country is currently going through.
The value is truth. Not, I want to be clear, "Truth" with a capital T—the kind that has to do with God, and Country, and The Meaning of Life. That value is an extension of loyalty, and is already covered in the five.
No. I mean small-t truth. The value of getting the facts straight. Who really wrote that book? Is that story literally true, or a fabrication? What happened to all that money?
It may be that this is a relatively new value, a product of the age of science, or of the kinds of courts we have in a modern democracy. In any case, it's a value that we, or at least some of us, have embraced quite naturally, and a very useful one.
The problem, of course, is how to determine just what the truth is—especially when there are those who would like to keep us in the dark.
That brings me to the email my friend forwarded to me.
One of the best resources we have to protect us from these lies is Snopes.com, a site which does extremely good fact checking with very limited resources.
For years now, Snopes has been a very useful reference tool, used by major news sources as well as people like you and me. The site has exposed many fake virus warnings, false political allegations against politicians both left and right, and a great many other urban legends.
In general, the existence of Snopes makes the task of using email propaganda to spread political lies much more difficult.
Which is why I was so interested in the email my friend forwarded.
It was an intentional, and dishonest, attempt to discredit Snopes.
I'll go through it for you, as a sort of exercise in noticing the kinds of tricks these people use.
It begins with a note from "Doctor Steve"—a nice touch. "Dr. Steve" must be a real person, right? You see the name and you can't help picturing his friendly face. You notice his white jacket, perhaps even his stethoscope.
The problem, of course, is that we have no idea who he actually is (there's no last name, no email address, no telephone number), or even if he exists.
"Dr. Steve" doesn't claim to have written the email. He's only forwarding it.
He says it was written by another doctor, a colleague, whose intelligence he vouches for. This colleague is never named, making the whole thing even more untraceable while seeming to buttress its credentials. We do learn, however, that the colleague's brother is named "Bill", another untraceable concrete detail to lend credibility.
The email continues:
For the past few years www.snopes.com has positioned itself, or others have labeled it, as the 'tell all final word' on any comment, claim and email.
Actually, this is an exaggeration—setting up a straw man. Snopes is known as a very reliable, useful, and honest source. It has a very good reputation. But I am quite sure that the Mikkelsons (who run the site) would absolutely reject the idea that they were the " 'tell all final word' on any comment, claim and email".
But for several years people tried to find out who exactly was behind snopes.com. Only recently did Wikipedia get to the bottom of it - kinda makes you wonder what they were hiding. Well, finally we know. It is run by a husband and wife team - that's right, no big office of investigators and researchers, no team of lawyers. It's just a mom-and-pop operation that began as a hobby.
I don't know who these "people" were, who spent "several years" trying to find information that is on the site itself. Wikipedia first put up an article on Snopes in 2004, and by February of that year the Mikkelsons were listed there as well, so "only recently" also seems to be a stretch.
The trick here is to first pretend that Snopes claims to be a "big office of investigators and researchers", then pretend to discover that they aren't, then pretend that therefore they must be hiding something.
But it gets worse.
To be continued...