I remember the first time I heard the term “Internet.”
It was in the newsroom of The Mountaineer around 1990, when reporter Dan Conover described the rapidly developing system that would tie computers — and information — from all over the world together.
I had no idea how fast or how much the Internet would transform our lives. I do remember thinking, however, of the potential of having so much information at our fingertips, and what it could do to build our intellect and our minds.
As a nation, we’ve failed miserably in living up to that potential.
What I didn’t realize at that time is that most people don’t want to learn something new. They want to be reinforced in what they already believe. So instead of using the Internet to explore both sides of an issue, or to learn about history, art, geography or a multitude of other worthy studies, most people spend their time confirming what they already think.
It is easy to do. I have been guilty of it, as have members of my family and so many of my friends. We read something that inspires and delights us and pass it on, particularly on Facebook, without investigating its accuracy. We hit “share” without question because the story confirms what we feel or think, our religious or political views. And much of it just ain’t true.
That doesn’t mean our beliefs are invalid, or that our political opinions are without merit. It simply means that we don’t question what’s already in line with our ideas, while screaming “liar” — or worse — at anything that opposes or challenges us.
So what’s the problem with passing on an inspiring story if it isn’t true? The problem is that we don’t pass it on as fiction or parable, but as fact.
And when it is found to be false, it appears we have to lie to support our beliefs, undermining the very thing we were trying to promote.
As a Christian, this particularly distresses me, because Christians are taught the the value of ultimate truth, that God cannot lie. So we shouldn’t have to lie, intentionally or otherwise, to defend or support the faith.
Here are a few of the recent stories shared on Facebook by friends of mine, beloved friends, that have driven me a little crazy.
1. People upset over the removal of “Aunt Jemima” from Quaker Foods’ pancake syrup have circulated a story that the original “Aunt Jemima,” Nancy Green, was a shrewd businesswoman who became one of the first black millionaires in America by using her cooking skills to create a brand later purchased by General Mills. So removing the image, they argue, is an insult to black history, enterprise and success. Great argument. Great story — if it were true.
In fact, Nancy Green didn’t create the food, or the image. That came from two men who had developed a self-rising pancake mix and needed a way to promote it. One of the partners saw a minstrel show featuring white men, faces painted black, singing a song, “Old Aunt Jemima.” The two changed the name of their mix, sold their milling company to another man who recognized that Aunt Jemima could promote the product. That man hired a former slave, Nancy Green, to dress up as Aunt Jemima and tell stories of her slave days, stories written by sales reps. And since Green listed her occupation late in life as cook and later housekeeper, it is unlikely she made any significant money off her appearances. In fact, her descendants have sued General Mills, claiming the opposite.
2. There is a quote credited to C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia and many books on Christianity, making the rounds during the pandemic. It is supposedly from the Screwtape Letters, describing how the Devil and his demons lure souls to hell by using fear. Some of the quotes have been accompanied by an image of a demon as a pied piper, leading multitudes who are all wearing medical masks. The quote is not a Lewis quote and is not in the Screwtape Letters. I checked my own copy of that little book, and now the C.S. Lewis Foundation has also declared that it is false. There are some fantastic C.S. Lewis quotes out there, but this popular share isn’t one of them.
3. One of the most recent shares has been the story of a set of nurses who realized their coronavirus tests were all coming back positive. As an experiment, they allegedly sent in blank swabs, which also came back positive. I can’t swear this one is false — no one can, because the story doesn’t say where this “discovery” took place or name any individual, supposedly for protection of those nurses. Makes it awfully hard to confirm or debunk a story when it floats out there without any names or location.
There are several fact checking organizations, also on the Internet, devoted entirely to confirming or debunking stories. My favorite is Snopes.com, for it attributes the sources of its research, and appears even handed. Another friend, when one of her stories was challenged with research from Snopes, responded simply that Snopes was “liberal.” But I have seen this site defend President Trump from false accusations while confirming other charges. Snopes has recently confirmed one nasty rumor about Democrat Presidential candidate Joe Biden, while labeling other charges against him as false. I wouldn’t recommend depending on any one site all the time to check Internet stories, but Snopes is a good place to start.
The Internet is like fire, a useful tool in context, but capable of terrible destruction when used carelessly. On this July Fourth weekend, part of my prayer for our country will be that all of us — Conservatives, Liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Christians or otherwise, use it with wisdom and care, lest it tear us apart in rifts based on falsehoods.