We've long warned our readers to make good use of the delete key when emails spreading sketchy claims pop up in their inboxes. But we've found that old viral emails, unfortunately, never die — and new ones spread like a highly contagious disease.
These overwhelmingly anonymous messages are, by and large, bogus. Many not only twist the facts but also peddle pure fabrications, urging recipients to forward these "shocking" revelations to all their friends. And despite all good common sense, people do pass along these malicious attempts to deceive, often in the same amount of time it would take to check their tenuous hold on veracity.
Our readers — some clearly trying to beat back the onslaught from friends — constantly ask us to put these viral claims to the truth test.
In 2012, we found that:
n Dueling graphics on the debt both overstated and understated President Barack Obama's contribution to the debt.
n No, Obama didn't give Alaskan islands to Russia, and his early records weren't "sealed."
n Over-the-top "death panel" claims about the Affordable Care Act included purely invented stories about elderly Americans being denied dialysis or brain surgery.
n Vote-rigging conspiracies claimed that Tagg Romney owned voting machines in Ohio (he doesn't) and that uncounted military ballots swung the election for Obama (from a "faux news" site).
n In the tin-foil-hat category, one conspiracy said Obama was creating martial law and a "standing army of government youth." The adult-aged FEMA Corps members help with natural disasters and can't carry weapons.
n General Motors is still firmly based in the U.S., despite claims that it's becoming "China Motors."
n Old-but-still-kicking emails percolated, claiming that Medicare premiums were about to skyrocket, everyone's home sales would be taxed, and the Obama administration wanted to ban weapons among U.S. citizens — none of which is true.
Here's our year-end roundup of some of the most egregious and most asked-about viral claims of 2012.
We cautioned our readers years ago that with viral email claims, not just skepticism but "outright cynicism is justified." Despite clear evidence to debunk some of these claims, and the far-removed-from-reality assertions in others, they still make the rounds.
And they're filled with plenty of warning signs that their claims don't hold up: anonymous authors, an inordinate use of capital letters and exclamation points (not to mention bad spelling), links to supposed source material that doesn't back up the message. Some even implore readers to confirm the email by checking Snopes.com — a rumor-debunking site that, it turns out, finds the message to be false.
Yet these emails are believed. Why? It could simply be the desire to accept information that conforms with one's beliefs and to reject facts that don't. David Emery, author of About.com's Urban Legends page, told us in 2008: "I have come to the conclusion that especially where political rumors are concerned, most people are so locked into a particular world view that they tend to reject any information, no matter how well supported, that contradicts their cherished assumptions."
Much of what we've seen lambasts the president, or Democrats. It's to be expected that whoever is sitting in the White House would bear the brunt of online discontent. But we can't give a definitive reason for why the viral chatter is more conservative in nature.
Social media — not just email — is used to spread false claims. We found dueling graphics on the debt — one conservative, one liberal — making the rounds on Facebook early this year.
The Democratic version, which originally came from the office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, claimed the debt had increased by only a relatively small percentage under President Barack Obama, compared with large percentage hikes under Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
A "corrected" version of the graphic increased the number for Obama, but it was still too low. And it didn't reflect that the rate of rise had been faster under Obama, who was only in his first term in office.
The Republican debt graphic, meanwhile, wrongly claimed Obama had increased the debt by more than all other presidents combined. Its figures were simply made up. They were easily debunked by visiting the Treasury Department's "debt to the penny" website. The truth is that the debt has been increasing for years under presidents of both parties. It has gone up 54 percent under Obama, as of Dec. 24.
We made our own charts and graphics on the debt. Sadly, they weren't widely posted on Facebook.
'Death Panel' never dies
Fear and disdain for the Affordable Care Act have spawned rather absurd email messages, claiming that older Americans would be denied care under the law. In one, an anonymous person fabricated the story of an emergency room doctor in Tennessee, saying that the law denies dialysis to some Medicare patients, and that in 2013 major procedures for anyone over the age of 75 would have to be approved by "locally administered Ethics Panels."
The Tennessee physician, who was named in the message, is real, but that's where the truth in this story ends. The law doesn't call for any "ethics panels." A spokesman for the hospital in question told us that the story was made up by a guest in the doctor's home, that the doctor was upset about it, and that "if there has been any effect from the healthcare reform law, it has been increased access for patients."
Another chain email spread a link to a YouTube clip of a caller on a radio talk show falsely claiming to be a brain surgeon and saying Obama wanted to deny emergency brain surgery for anyone over 70. The caller, identified as only "Jeff" from Chicago, claimed that a document outlining this policy was discussed at a seminar of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. But those groups said they didn't know what "Jeff" was talking about. A spokeswoman also told us that they knew who this man was and that he is not a brain surgeon or a neurosurgeon.
Conspiracy theories run amok
Viral emails have pushed the theory that Obama is aiming to institute some kind of police state. One message claimed he had issued more than 900 executive orders, some of them creating martial law. But the real number at the time was 139 orders — none of which called for martial law.
In one order, Obama, as previous presidents have done, updated his office's power to use national resources to prepare the nation for a war or emergency. That authority was first granted to the president by Congress in 1950.
What do Obama's executive orders have to do with a New York Times photo from a story on a Boy Scouts program? Answer: nothing. Yet those elements, along with a civilian FEMA program, Department of Homeland Security ammunition purchases, and a picture from Nazi Germany, were strung together in a nutty message claiming that DHS was creating a "standing army of government youth" known as FEMA Corps.
The Boy Scouts program, for youths interested in a career in law enforcement, has nothing to do with FEMA. And FEMA Corps is a civilian community service program, part of AmeriCorps, for adults ages 18 through 24, who help FEMA in responding to natural disasters. FEMA Corps members are prohibited from carrying any weapons, including guns.
Even the National Rifle Association had come out to squash conspiracies over DHS' ammunition purchases, saying that the suggestion that Obama was "preparing for a war with the American people" displays "a lack of understanding of the law enforcement functions carried about by officers in small federal agencies." But cyberspace accepts all kinds: This convoluted rant has found a home, being forwarded by those whose motivations we can't begin to understand.
A rare glimmer of truth
As we said, we overwhelmingly see far-fetched and distorted claims being spread from inbox to inbox. But we did get one this year that was actually true. The message correctly cited a story by Indianapolis television station WTHR-TV, which wasn't the first to report on billions in refundable tax credits going to people without valid Social Security numbers.
The Treasury Department's inspector general found that $4.2 billion was paid in 2010 to "individuals who are not authorized to work in the United States." The credits are refundable child tax credits (currently $1,000 per child), and it's possible to claim the credit with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, given by the IRS to those who don't qualify for a Social Security number — so that the IRS can collect taxes.
The whole issue became a political fight between Republicans, who wanted to end the payments, and Democrats, who said it was the U.S.-born children of these workers who would be hurt.
By Lori Robertson for FactCheck.org