|Have you heard the one about Mr. Rogers wearing all those sweaters because he was covering up the tattoos he got while training to become a Navy SEAL assassin? Or that the real reason the ocean is salty is because of certain bodily functions conducted by the sperm whale?|
Then there's the picture of a raccoon holding a cat. And the news that thieves can unlock your car doors with a cellphone and a spare remote key.
And surely you read that terrorists are buying up missing or stolen UPS uniforms! And that you'll get a computer virus if you accept a Facebook friend invitation from someone named Amy Allen.
Everything you just read (and it's probably not the first time you've run across some of it) is pure, USDA-approved baloney. The late Fred Rogers had little more in his "past" than a college degree in musical composition. Whales don't douse the sea with salt. That raccoon pic was a Photoshop fake. Cellphones can't crack your car open. A large number of UPS uniforms haven't gone missing. And if you happen to have a friend named Amy Allen, she's probably no more a computer hacker than you are.
Rumors and urban legends like these are streaming from one email box to another with frightening speed these days. And some are even gaining mainstream help from reputable news agencies as the rush of the 24/7 news cycle pushes fact-checking onto the back burner. It's getting harder and harder to weed out fact from fiction. But just because it's difficult doesn't make it optional. There's just no good excuse for blindly passing on these kinds of "facts."
Merriam-Webster defines libel as the "defamation of a person by written or representational means." I just can't get past the idea that a hefty percentage of ring-around-the-rosie emails are exactly that. At best, they're old-fashioned gossip. At worst, they're downright prosecutable. So I've been wondering for a while now how we've managed to trick ourselves into thinking that whispering behind someone's back is a serious character flaw, but spreading email rumors is just fun and games. As adults, we should be setting the example for our kids and plotting a righteous course though this volatile medium.
The Bible doesn't pull any punches when it comes to libel, slander and gossip. Proverbs reads like a primer on the virtues of honesty, calling those who slander "fools." Psalm 101:5 says, "Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence." Jesus lists slander in the same breath as evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality and theft in Matthew 15:19. Paul expresses fear that his friends at the Corinthian church had backslidden into "quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder" (2 Corinthians 12:20).
So we know the right thing to do. We just haven't made much of an effort to translate it into the language of modern technology. That means applying 1 Peter 3:10 not only to our tongues, but to our "sent" folders.
The next time you or your teen receive a forwarded email bearing some delicious morsel, take a minute to think about what you're reading. A good rule of thumb is to simply doubt anything sent via email until you can prove it to be true. Double-check stories with the urban legend research available at truthorfiction.com and snopes.com. Those websites have been very valuable to me. Not only will they help you avoid relaying tall tales, but they'll keep you from making foolish mistakes (like when one malicious email masquerading as virus protection told people to delete critical files from their hard drives).
Maybe the U.S. Postal Service should start charging—as one rumor claimed—five cents for every email sent. Then people would have to think a little longer before clicking that "forward" button.
Published September 2011