Wednesday, March 19, 2008
On Sunday, March 16, 2008, "The New York Times Magazine" published an article titled "Rumor's Reasons." The author, Farhad Manjoo delivers an excellent account on how rumors are perpetuated on the Internet and why they are so difficult to rebut once they are spread.
Citing the "Obama-is-a-Muslim" rumor as an example of pop culture's obsession with Internet gossip, Manjoo relates how blogger Andy Martin stated on-line that "Barack Obama [was a] Muslim who has concealed his religion." Most reputable journalists ignored the story "which offered no proof." The story however took on a life all its own and "bounced about blogs, mutating over the course of a couple of years..."
In spite of denials by "news organizations and fact-checking Web sites," the Obama rumor has stuck around and simply will not go away. Change the name from Barack Obama to David Caruso and you have the same scenario that this blog and Dojo's excellent blog face every day. Gabriele Huber, Caruso's indicted Austrian stalker, plants a rumor on multiple sites and shortly thereafter, it takes on a life all its own.
According to Manjoo, "digital technology" is partially to blame for this cultural phenomenon. The difficulties in separating truth from fiction are also psychological. Manjoo theorizes that when efforts are made to refute a rumor, the mere mentioning of it could serve to further it. Norbert Schwarz, a University of Michigan psychologist, demonstrates the role our brains play when it involves separating truth from fiction:
"To determine the veracity of a given statement, we often look to society's collective assessment of it. But it is difficult to measure social consensus very precisely, and our brains rely, instead, upon a sensation of familiarity with an idea. You use a rule of thumb: if something seems familiar, you must have heard it before, and if you've heard it before, it must be true."http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/magazine/16wwln-idealab-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine&oref=slogin
Is it wasted effort then to try to quash the rumors that Caruso's stalker smears all over the Internet? Unfortunately as Manjoo states, oftentimes a "well-executed refutation [will not] kill the rumor." He seems to be suggesting that once a rumor is started it rarely dies. It may change form, but it never really disappears. Recall the stalker's "hot Miami night club executive" rumor and how she has now changed it simply to Caruso has taken up with "another woman." The rumor remains, albeit changed, in spite of any proof.
At the moment, we are engaged in a battle between what is true about David Caruso and what the stalker fabricates about him. Caruso's fans do not accept the stalker's "True Lies". Manjoo, though, is not too terribly optimistic on the chances the truth will win out in the end:
"There's an arms race between truth and fiction, and at the moment, the truth doesn't appear to be winning."
On the other hand, I am convinced that people deep down truly know right from wrong. That belief is and always will be the motivation behind this blog.