Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Chain e-mails are back — and they're still wrong

A bogus e-mail claims Obama wants to change the military oath, such as the one here at Lackland Air Force Base. (Air Force photo)
A bogus e-mail claims Obama wants to change the military oath, such as the one here at Lackland Air Force Base. (Air Force photo)

Chain e-mails, generally characterized by exclamation points, typos and a strained relationship with the truth, were perhaps the most effective distribution method for falsehoods in the 2008 presidential campaign.

They spread like viruses, infecting the ill-informed and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the address book of the ill-informed.

But they live on. Readers have sent us two recently that they wanted us to check out.

One targets Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat and speaker of the House of Representatives, accusing her of trying to take money from retirees and give it to illegal immigrants. The other one takes aim at President Obama, claiming that he wants to end the long tradition of having the military take an oath to the Constitution and replace it with an oath to the president.

Needless to say, we found both are Pants on Fire wrong, but they each provide an interesting glimpse into the people passing along these unfounded claims and their unique style of capitalization and their fondness for exclamation points.

The Pelosi e-mail

A version of this one popped up as early as October 2006, just before the Democrats won control of the House. "'Only the rich benefit from these record highs,'" it alleged Pelosi said about the stock market. "'There is no question these windfall profits and income created by the Bush administration need to be taxed at 100 percent rate and those dollars redistributed to the poor and working class.'"

Pelosi never said anything of the kind. (If she had, it's reasonable to conclude it would have hampered her fundraising, which netted $151,000 from the securities and investment sector in the past two years.)

A more recent version, forwarded numerous times to us from readers imploring us to check it out, shares the same thrust, though it is in a class by itself when it comes to misplaced capital letters.

"Nancy Pelosi wants a Windfall Tax on Retirement Income," it says. "Madam speaker [where's that shift key when you need it?] Nancy Pelosi wants to put a Windfall Tax on all stock market profits, including Retirement fund, 401K and Mutual Funds! Alas, it is true — all to help the 12 Million Illegal Immigrants and other unemployed Minorities!"

"Send it on to your friends," the e-mail concludes. "I just did!! This lady is out of her mind."

Pelosi's office is well-practiced at responding to inquiries about this hoax, and did so with a prepared letter from the Speaker:

"Internet and e-mail rumors indicating that I support a windfall profits tax on earnings from the stock market are completely and utterly fabricated," Pelosi's letter says. "In addition, my record on promoting retirement security and strengthening 401(k)'s and other savings incentives in the tax code contradict these rumors."

The Democratic presidential candidates kicked around the idea of a windfall tax on oil companies, and Democrats support the idea of raising the capital gains tax rate somewhat. But there simply is not a shred of proof in the public record that Pelosi has ever advocated anything even remotely like the windfall tax described in these e-mails.

In her letter she provided links to two other fact-checkers who have debunked these e-mails, Snopes.com and Truthorfiction.com. She might consider adding FactCheck.org — they took on this hoax on Jan. 14, 2009.

And by all means, feel free to add us to the list. This chain e-mail, distinguished by its longevity and implausibility, is Pants on Fire wrong.

Obama and the military oath

The other e-mail provides a case study in how a bogus story can spread with lightning speed.

Our tale begins on Jan. 28, when Matthew Avitabile, a 22-year-old grad student in upstate New York, decided to write a tongue-in-cheek blog item that said President Obama wanted soldiers to stop taking an oath to the Constitution and instead pledge their loyalty to the president himself.

Under the fake name Michele Chang — a name he dreamed up because he had just been talking to someone named Michele — Avitabile wrote a bogus news story that quoted a statement from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying, "The President feels that the military has been too indoctrinated by the old harbingers of hate: nationalism, racism, and classism. By removing an oath to the American society, the soldiers are less likely to commit atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib."

Avitabile labeled it satire in a note beneath the story, but in the superheated world of political blogs, where passions often run faster than reason, that wasn't enough.

The label got left off and his bogus story was quickly copied and pasted on blogs, zapped around the country through chain e-mails, and discussed in YouTube commentaries. Many people didn't bother to verify it and responded with comments of outrage.

" Who does this megalomaniac think he is?" someone commented on the Web site Digg.

"Good g*d---Obama is an egomaniac like we've never seen before. Another Hitler on the rise. This guy is just trashing everything the Consitution stands for," wrote someone named Kitty on the blog Tree of Liberty.

Someone identified as bill122460 posted a commentary about it on YouTube titled " OBAMA S HITLER OATH THIS IS MESSED UP ."

"He don't belong in office," bill122460 said in the five-minute commentary. "End of story."

He added that it was "a Hitler oath. I told you! Welcome to the United States of Nazi Germany!"

It's clear that bill122460 and many other people didn't know it was satire. Some of the blog postings referred to Michele Chang as if she were a well-known (and real) writer. "Michele Chang: bama wants to have soldiers and officers pledge a loyalty oath directly to bama, not the Constitution," said one.

Some blogs were eventually corrected, or people posted comments that said the article was a fake, but others still carry the fake article. Brent Johnson, a radio host who posted the item on his Voice of Freedom blog, said he posted it without verifying it because "This is one of those stories where, if it is true, is so, so serious. It’s the kind of thing people need to know about in the chance it is true."

But now that Johnson has heard it is a satire, he said he will revise or remove the item.

Avitabile, a Republican who had previously poked fun at Obama with a tongue-in-cheek article that said scientists had determined that he was "genetically superior," is thankful for all the traffic it generated for his blog Jumping in Pools. In the past he was lucky to get 1,000 hits on a story, but this one got more than 50,000. Yet he's disappointed that so many people published his work without verifying it.

"Out of the 50,000 who looked at it, only three had the good sense to contact me and see if it was true," he told us (PolitiFact was one of the three).

Avitabile described himself as a moderate Republican — "I'm pro-gay rights, pro-wind energy" — but said he was surprised that so many in his party had such negative feelings about Obama.

"People wanted to believe this about the president so bad, that he would really go toward a dictatorship so much that they would go with it without checking it," he said.

Indeed, we all know that passions run high in politics, but it's remarkable to us that so many people would pass along something that is so obviously ridiculous without verifying it. But we should have expected this. During the campaign, we found people were passing along e-mails claiming that Obama wanted to adopt the Coke theme song as the National Anthem .

So now, as we did for that one, we've got to set the meter ablaze. And this claim is not just Pants on Fire wrong. It's a reminder that if you get something shocking in your inbox, you should check it out before you pass it along.