October 26, 2007

The Nation Takes E-Mail Way Too Seriously

The Nation's Christopher Hayes has a breaking scoop: e-mail glurge stinks and is almost entirely inaccurate. The liberal magazine somehow missed this breaking news ten or more years ago when it first became obvious, but Hayes sees a vast right-wing conspiracy behind the barrage of idiotic dreck that winds up in inboxes around the Internet. He points to several silly messages that only could appeal to the completely unintiated:

On February 27, 2001, two members of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women who've lost sons or daughters in combat, dropped by the temporary basement offices of the new junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. They didn't have an appointment, and the office, which had been up and running for barely a month, was a bit discombobulated. The two women wanted to talk to the senator about a bill pending in the Senate that would provide annuities for the parents of those killed, but they were told that Clinton wasn't in the office and that the relevant staff members were otherwise engaged. The organization later submitted a formal request in writing for a meeting, which Clinton granted, meeting and posing for pictures with four members of the group.

But the story doesn't end there. In May of that year, the right-wing website NewsMax, a clearinghouse for innuendo and rumor, ran a short item with the headline "Hillary Snubs Gold Star Mothers." Reporting via hearsay--a comment relayed to someone who then recounted it to the column's author--the article claimed that Clinton and her staff "simply refused" to meet with the Gold Star Mothers, making hers the "only office" in the Senate that snubbed the group.

At first the item didn't attract much attention, but it quickly morphed into an e-mail that started ricocheting across the Internet. "Bet this never hits the TV news!" began one version. "According to NewsMax.com there was only one politician in DC who refused to meet with these ladies. Can you guess which politician that might be?... None other than the Queen herself--the Hildebeast, Hillary Clinton." ....

Such is the power of the right-wing smear forward, a vehicle for the dissemination of character assassination that has escaped the scrutiny directed at the Limbaughs and Coulters and O'Reillys but one that is as potent as it is invisible. In 2004 putative firsthand accounts of Kerry's performance in Vietnam traveled through e-mail in right-wing circles, presaging the Swift Boat attacks. Last winter a forward began circulating accusing Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim schooled in a radical madrassa (about which more later). While the story was later fed through familiar right-wing megaphones, even making it onto Fox, it has continued to circulate via e-mail long after being definitively debunked by CNN. In other words, the few weeks the smear spent in the glare of the mainstream media was just a tiny portion of a long life cycle, most of which has been spent darting from inbox to inbox.

In that respect, the e-mail forward doesn't fit into our existing model of the right-wing noise machine's structure (hierarchical) or its approach (broadcast). It is, instead, organic and peer-to-peer. If the manufactured outrage over Kerry's botched joke about George Bush's study habits was the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the Gold Star Mother smear was like one of those goofy viral videos of a dog on a skateboard on YouTube. Of course, some of those videos end up with 25 million page views. And now that large media companies understand their potential, they've begun trying to create their own

The only useful piece of information contained in the article is a reference to Snopes, an urban-legend debunking site that is an essential reference for anyone with e-mail. It's an entertaining and amusing site, one that has kept more than a few correspondents from deluging me with insipid chain e-mails over the years before I started blogging. If The Nation can get even more people to check Snopes before hitting forward, then this article would be worth it.

In fact, Hayes himself could have tried checking out Snopes before writing the article. He says that the "vast majority" of attacks come from the right. Just looking at the Moral Outrage category of Snopes'e-mail debunking, that hardly seems accurate. This section includes quite a bit of illegitimate Bush-bashing, including rumors that Bush refused to sell his home to blacks, his alleged brush-off with a protestor, waving at Stevie Wonder, all of which circulated during the 2004 election, contrary to Hayes' assertion that all e-mail regarding Bush was positive. In fact, the Wonder-wave story was picked up by the Washington Post in the same manner as Hayes decries regarding Matt Drudge. [Not correct -- see update below]

Hayes also doesn't mention the deluge of political glurge that comes from people too incoherent to blog for themselves. We get blogposts from left-wing blogs sent to us from people who hide their e-mail addresses behind silly fibs like "laughing@bush.org". It gets the same treatment as any other unsolicited e-mails -- it goes straight to the spam file. It's all immature, as is Hayes' pretense that only one side indulges in it.

Anyone dumb enough to believe e-mail glurge will no doubt be dumb enough to read Hayes. The rest of the Internet has long since discovered that unsourced e-mails claiming to reveal truths have the same value as those coming from Nigerian princes or dying rich people looking for someone to help them distribute their wealth.

UPDATE: Via commenter Markg8, that passage is extremely sloppy on my part. I got Hayes' meaning exactly backwards, and he wrote that Bush e-mails were "split evenly between adulatory accounts of him saluting wounded soldiers or witnessing to a wayward teenager, and accounts of real and invented malapropisms." My apologies to Hayes. His point was that all of the e-mails about John Kerry were negative. That may well be true, although I don't think anyone would have sent me pro-Kerry glurge in 2004 even if it existed. I'll takes Hayes' word on that.

Still, I'm somewhat flummoxed to read that anyone takes e-mail effluvium seriously, or has in the last 10 years. I think gossip stinks, too, but it's not going anywhere, either.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments (17)

Posted by ScottM | October 26, 2007 12:18 PM

"The rest of the Internet has long since discovered that unsourced e-mails claiming to reveal truths have the same value as those coming from Nigerian princes or dying rich people looking for someone to help them distribute their wealth."

Or articles in The Nation.

Posted by RW | October 26, 2007 12:34 PM

Anyone dumb enough to believe e-mail glurge will no doubt be dumb enough to read Hayes.

Kevin Drum, I think he's referring to you and your idiotic commenters. If he's not, then I will.

Posted by RD | October 26, 2007 12:36 PM

I guard my e-mail address zealously and have told those who have it that I want no jokes, sermons, sentimental,religious or political articles sent to me and it has worked. It is funny that the only e-mail false information I have fallen for was the one about needing to put my cell phone number (another thing that I guard also) on a no call list and I got that information printed out and handed out from my daughter's work place. Too late (after I had posted it myself) did I look it up at Snopes.com. However, I have found what I consider to be biased and misinformation on Snopes so take everything with a grain of salt. My sympathies to the Captain who cannot control what he receives on his e-mail and still maintain a blog.

Posted by Steve Skubinna | October 26, 2007 12:39 PM

Are you telling us you actually read The Nation? Why? Looking for evidence that communists are delusional, when they aren't outright lying? Then you can stop looking. Sorry, I don't think unreconstructed and nostalgic Stalinists are cute, eccentric, or amusing. Nor do I think their fevered rantings interesting.

Posted by RD | October 26, 2007 12:52 PM

Unfortunately, there is a lot of unsubstantiated and misinformation in the MSM also and even after that has been thoroughly debunked it becomes part of the lasting "narrative" because most people believe what they want to believe and the truth has been either missed or ignored.

Posted by markg8 | October 26, 2007 12:58 PM

Try again Ed:
contrary to Hayes' assertion that all e-mail regarding Bush was positive.

From the beginning, the vast majority of these Internet-disseminated rumors have come from the right. (Snopes lists about fifty e-mails about George W. Bush, split evenly between adulatory accounts of him saluting wounded soldiers or witnessing to a wayward teenager, and accounts of real and invented malapropisms. In contrast, every single one of the twenty-two e-mails about John Kerry is negative.

Posted by Ray in Mpls | October 26, 2007 1:01 PM

All this proves the old adage; Don't believe everything you read. I wonder why Hayes has forgotten that simple piece of advice?

Posted by Carol Herman | October 26, 2007 1:05 PM

Today's youth aren't familiar with Ma Bell's track record. But when phones first became available to the public ... (Oh, circa 1915). The phones that were available were "party lines."

My mom told the story of the first time she answered one of those ringing phones. Picked up the receiver. (The phone was in the hallway of a walk-up; typical for the crowded living spaces down on the lower East Side. She said "hello." Her brother answered. And, my mom fainted. She said what frightened her was that her brother wasn't standing there ... but he came in over the "wires" ... She just didn't expect it.)

And, back in those days? If you were gossiping on the phone, everyone, including your Aunt Matilda heard about it. And, could even blow more details into this than you'd expect.

Party lines weren't private. You lost control.

Then, to hear Matt Drudge tell it; we're losing controls every day to our government. And, the cameras. The ubiquitous way it "watches you."

And, in particular; court decisions that say there's no privacy when you write e-mails. Because of the way it disseminates.

You've probably heard how congress likes to go after white house e-mails. Because they're not judged "personal correspondence."

Though I gotta tell ya; FDR never wrote anything down. He also kept saying "yes, yes, yes," while people were speaking to him. This led many to the false assumptions that he was in agreement with their positions. Not true. "Yes, yes, yes," is just a polite way to signal "you are paying attention."

Then, I read a now-public letter, FDR sent to his favorite cousin. Circa? 1932? He had met Winston Churchill in New York. At some function. Or other. And, he wrote to his cousin, thrilled to have "met a politician in the mold of LaGuardia."

I never know.

And, it saddens me to realize how FDR learned to escape "historical re-interpretations," by just not ever writing things down.

By the way, all your words, typed into the ether of the Internet, belong to our government.

I just don't care. Frosts off Matt Drudge, though.

Posted by Captain Ed | October 26, 2007 1:09 PM


You're right, and I'm wrong. I posted a correction on an update, and credited you.

Posted by LarryD | October 26, 2007 1:18 PM

And, in particular; court decisions that say there's no privacy when you write e-mails. Because of the way it disseminates.

Yeah, they're no more private than a post card. I've worked with email software, not just the User Agent stuff, but the servers. An email is kept in a plain text on disk while the server works on passing it off to the next delivery agent. It's really not private Carol. The courts have got it right.

And spam is now over 90% of all email.

Posted by Swede | October 26, 2007 1:35 PM

He's just super pissed because he found out the hard way that those "Penis Enlargement" spams don't work.

And yes, those were all part of a vast right wing conspiracy.

And now we're all laughing at him.

Posted by jharp | October 26, 2007 2:23 PM

"Despite the fact that CNN and others have thoroughly debunked the smear, the original false accusation has clearly sunk into people's consciousness. One Obama organizer told me recently that every day, while calling prospective voters, he gets at least one or two people who tell him they won't be voting for Obama because he's a Muslim."

I think Mr. Hayes is right.

Posted by unclesmrgol | October 26, 2007 3:07 PM


The Democrats may be too dumb to send e-mail, but they aren't too dumb to not send plenty of "dreck" snail mail. I've gotten plenty of junk mail in my box from various Democratic operatives over the years with precisely the content The Nation talks about -- it dwarfs the mail I get from the republican side. The republicans have never sent me an application for a Republican Party VISA card -- whereas the DNC has sent me one for the Democratic counterpart. Of course, I'm in California, and maybe Republican "dreck" is higher in red states.

Posted by George Bruce | October 26, 2007 3:18 PM

I get lots of emails offering to sell me Viagra, nostrums to enlarge a certain appendage, prescription drugs without a prescription from Canadian pharmacies, girls eager to have sex with me, and seeking my financial information for phony loan offers. In short, they want me to take more drugs, be promiscuous and have less money.

In other words, the Democrats are behind it.

Posted by Teresa | October 26, 2007 4:38 PM

I'd have to say "Obama as secret Muslim" is one thing that I see in the comment sections here and on a lot of other conservative blogs. Hayes is right in that this is a pretty effective way to sway public opinion under the radar.

Posted by beachmom | October 26, 2007 11:28 PM

I would love to agree with you that people wouldn't believe these gossipy e-mails, but the fact is, many do. I can't tell you how many e-mails my Mom sends me; I then carefully research them (mostly on Snopes.com), and send back the correct information to her (these are usually the medical/cancer causing type of e-mails).

On the political side, I think the Barack Obama rumor is an excellent case -- many, many people still believe that he is a Muslim. No matter how many times it gets debunked, people (not savvy internet users like ourselves) receive those e-mails, hear the info talked about, and the lie continues unabated. Hopefully, in the future, the younger generations will be properly educated in how to discern the validity of a piece of information from the internet or e-mail.

Posted by Jazz | October 27, 2007 5:43 AM

Anyone dumb enough to believe e-mail glurge will no doubt be dumb enough to read Hayes.

Right here on the pages of CQ, in the comments sections, I have on more than one occasion seen reference to Obama being a muslim and having attended a school for radical jihad. I think you take this subject too lightly. The quote I referenced above could, apparently, have the word "Hayes" substituted with the name of any political blog from either wing, including this one.

Post a comment