Let's say your BFF forwards you an e-mail with an outrageous quote attributed to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- and you happen to disagree with her politics and celebrity status.
The quote appears to be an excerpt from an interview, possibly copied from some news site. And it's so outrageous that it pretty much confirms all your biases about the 2008 Republican candidate for vice president. It just sounds like something you'd expect her to say.
"God made dinosaurs 4,000 years ago as ultimately flawed creatures, lizards of Satan really, so when they died and became petroleum products we, made in his perfect image, could use them in our pickup trucks, snow machines and fishing boats."
"OMG!" your friend writes. "LOL! Can you believe this?"
"Yes I can," you mutter grimly to yourself -- as you proceed to forward copies at the speed of touch -- typing to a dozen of your college roommates, siblings, parents, adult children, aunties and uncles and cousins, and work buddies.
Just one problem: the quote is completely bogus, made up and posted as clearly labeled satire during the summer of 2008 on a blog. But thousands of people distributed the ludicrous rant anyway without its disclaimer, forwarding it over and over to family and friends and acquaintances across the country. Even now, more than 30 months later, the same false info can be found archived on thousands of websites.
Perhaps it's so prevalent because a significant minority of people came to believe it was real.
Something similar occurred with e-mails that claimed to show a list of nearly 100 books that Sarah Palin banned from the public library while she served as mayor of Wasilla, even though it never happened.
Likewise, the e-mail viral machine spewed other now-infamous false statements that inexorably transformed over many months into "facts," such as "Barack Obama is a Muslim" and "Barack Obama does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the U.S."
Both statements have been thoroughly debunked, but the accusations still creep into political discourse and news commentary. Other examples include former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's recent false statements about Obama's Kenyan childhood as well as the U.S Supreme Court's refusal to hear yet another crank case challenging Obama's eligibility to be president.
If it came by e-mail, it seems, many people think it must be true.
In a study of reactions to political rumors propagated during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Ohio State University communications assistant professor R. Kelly Garrett found that people were much more likely to believe false statements when contained inside messages from family and friends.
While people tended to check out rumors posted on Internet sites and news portals, bringing to bear old-fashioned skepticism, they appeared willing to suspend disbelief when the information came from someone they knew well.
The process led to what Garrett calls a "particularly vicious feedback loop of rumor-mongering."
The more often people received e-mails with false rumors, the more of the rumors they believed. And as they increasingly bought into these false statements, they sent out even more e-mails that contained them.
But here's the twist: This dynamic only worked when it involved candidates the person already disliked or opposed.
"It is a self-reinforcing process that seems to amplify rumor beliefs through repetition," Garrett said in a story posted by Ohio State. "We have people who are biased to accept the rumors they receive from friends, which leads them to forward the e-mail to other friends, who repeat the process over and over again."
Rumor milling a cause of Congressional gridlock?
This garbage-in, garbage-out communications pattern may be a factor in the spreading of nasty political rhetoric and the subsequent Congressional gridlock that has gripped the government over the past few years. It threatens "to intensify partisan divisions and promote political extremity as individuals' perception of what constitutes 'fact' increasingly reflects their political predispositions," Garrett wrote.
To be published April 11 in the journal Human Communication Research, the study – "Troubling Consequences of Online Political Rumoring" -- was based on a telephone survey of 600 U.S. residents a few weeks after the November 2008 presidential election. In the survey, people were asked a series of questions about 10 political statements that had been in circulation on the Internet and in e-mails about the Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin presidential tickets. Two of the statements were true, but eight were false rumors that had been debunked websites like Snopes and Factcheck.org.
Garrett then worked over the results with a detailed and sophisticated statistical analysis.
While general Internet surfing may have exposed people to gobs of false rumors, people were wary of what they read and were likely to check them out, Garrett found. Just using the Internet didn't predispose people to believe false info.
"I think a lot of people will be surprised to learn that using the Internet doesn't necessarily promote belief in rumors. Many people seem to think that's self-evident," Garrett said in this story. "The Internet does make it easier to circulate rumors, but going online doesn't make us more gullible."
Not so with e-mails.
"The problem is that we are more likely to let our defenses down when we're dealing with our friends, which is why e-mail can have such harmful consequences," Garrett said. "We don't normally question what our friends tell us."
Aside from uncovering the "vicious feedback loop" that accelerates the spread of false information, Garrett's results offered a glimpse into how deeply the bogus information had penetrated the political process through e-mails among friends and family.
More than 90 percent of participants had heard the false rumor that "Barack Obama is a Muslim," and 55 percent had heard the refutation. But 22 percent -- disproportionately Obama opponents who got their info via emails -- still believed it.
Almost 60 percent had heard the false statement that "Barack Obama does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the U.S.," and 30 percent had heard that it was wrong. But 10 percent still believed it.
The two questions involving Sarah Palin showed the similar proportions among the responses. Participants were read the statement: "Sarah Palin said that 'God made dinosaurs 4,000 years ago' and called them 'Lizards of Satan.'" Some 9 percent of respondents had heard the rumor and 2 percent knew it had been debunked. Yet 3 percent believed it.
The other statement involving Palin: "While serving as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin successfully banned several books from the local library."
Some 40 percent had heard the rumor, and 15 percent knew it had been reported as false. But 13 percent -- again, disproportionately Palin opponents who got their info via email -- believed it anyway.
In this instance, the medium of e-mail may be giving the messages credibility they haven't earned.
"The problem is e-mail, or more accurately, the social dynamics that drive how people use e-mail," Garrett concluded in the paper. "Although most individuals do not thoughtlessly forward every rumor they encounter online, they are prone to spread falsehoods that strike them as plausible and that are consistent with their political predispositions and this practice rapidly and repeatedly reinforces political biases."