People are stupid and will believe almost anything you tell them. For instance, in the last few months I’ve had people forward me emails telling me that if I eat cake made from expired mix* or answer my cell phone while it’s plugged in, I may die.
*Why you would want to eat anything made from a mix, especially cake, is beyond me. But that’s neither here nor there to my point.
And while people not answering their cell phones when plugged in or not eating expired cake mixes have no long-term consequences one way or another for the welfare of humanity, they’re symptomatic of endemic American gullibility that will result in significant long-term consequences, if it hasn’t already.
The problem is that people believe the garbage that they get in forwarded emails without checking the facts. There are a few of us fact-checkers out there, so email forwarders have started prefacing their messages with “Note that it's confirmed on Snopes.” The sender/propagandist is banking on the likelihood that the recipient won’t take the time to actually click over to Snopes and get the real story, because what’s on Snopes very likely differs from what’s actually in the email. But this supposed verification makes the message that much more believable.
Back in the days before Snopes and email, these rumors didn’t spread nearly so fast, but they were still around. I remember being told by a certain family member that buying Liz Claiborne clothing was bad because Liz Claiborne had made a deal with the devil. The person telling me this assured me it was true because she had been told this from a woman at church. Because nobody at church has ever lied or exaggerated about anything.
Today, however, the rumors spread faster because people can easily add dozens of friends to the recipient list of an email and forward it along. And when these emails are spreading a message of hate or misinformation, they’re truly dangerous.
I said at the beginning that people will believe almost anything you tell them. And while many will believe anything they read in a forwarded email, I said “almost anything” because too many of these same people dismiss what they hear from reputable journalists as “leftist propaganda.” This ridiculous gullibility and the abject ignorance it fosters will result in the election of incompetent policymakers and the eventual demise of this country.
What’s worse is that it’s not just the email forwards spreading the message of hate, but radio and television as well. As detailed in this must-read article in the New York Times, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck drop “suggestions, hints, and notes that people are ‘questioning things.’” Their audience take this innuendo as gospel, and before you know it, 27 percent of the Republican party doesn’t believe the president is a citizen, even when ample evidence exists to the contrary. (The irony of this is that Limbaugh and Beck imply people are questioning things—actually using critical thinking skills.)
Further to this point, according to the Times article, 46 percent of the Republican party believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, and a growing faction in the party is under the false impression that the TARP bailout for banks is an Obama deal when in fact we have his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, to thank for that one.
At the root of this problem is a general lack of critical thinking skills. We’re all guilty of it: we’re told from a source we trust or at least want to trust that the world works a certain way, and we accept this as truth without questioning it. Many accept these so-called truths out of wishful thinking; they want the world to be a certain way, and so when they’re told so by someone who seems credible, they believe that’s the way it is.
Unfortunately, just as wishful thinking won’t decrease the unemployment rate or clean up the oil in the gulf or end the traffic jam in China or rescue the Chilean miners, neither will it make a fairy tale come true. My daughter desperately wants to believe in fairies, but at some point she’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that Tinkerbell is only real in Disney films, and she’s never actually granted anyone a wish. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to start making sure the Tinkerbells we encounter are real before we forward the email Tinkerbell supposedly wrote to everyone we know.