Tales from the Internet, Part 2: Clear thinking is right thinking
By Erik Jay
As observant users of its service are doubtless aware, AmericaOnline (AOL) plasters various kiddie-centric warnings against "offensive behavior" and "spam" and "stealth porno addresses" all over its websites, in pop-up boxes and ad banners and any other available spot. But the most ubiquitous warning on AOL, one inscribed permanently in the window where e-mail is accessed, is this: "REMINDER: AOL staff will never ask for your password or billing information."
Because I have cable modem service at home, I maintain an AOL account for mobile connectivity -- when I travel, I can have mail redirected to an AOL screen-name configured for that purpose, and pick it up from wherever I am. As I use it sporadically, e-mail tends to build up for me to clean out when I sign on; and, because people who know me contact me at my cable modem address, at which electronic front door I have installed "spam" filters, using my AOL account is now my only firsthand method of keeping up on what's happening in the world of junk mail, spam, and "e-fraud".
And not a month goes by that I don't log on to AOL to discover a letter, displayed in the window right above that "AOL will never ask" warning, asking quite straightforwardly for readers to supply their passwords and credit card numbers. Sometimes the pitch is the netquivalent of the old con where "bank examiners" ask for help in nabbing a "crooked teller"; other times the ploy is a take-off on the "we're updating our records" line; and I have also seen the request for information linked to "cash rewards" and "free surfing" offers. One characteristic that is consistent, however, is the desperately poor quality of the writing. The letters usually end with a sincere thanks from the "Aol Staff", too, which is a nice touch, notwithstanding the fact that AOL never refers to itself as "Aol", not even at the end of a world-record-breaking run-on sentence that may have left its writer too spent to hit and hold the shift key for the all-important corporate acronym.
After such an arduous build-up as this, I suppose my regular readers will accuse me of telegraphing my punch(line), for, of course, the point is that the letters continue to appear because people continue to fall for the cons.. In this scenario, we have an authoritative, conclusive rebuttal to the come-on plastered under the very window in which the fraudulent e-mail is first espied -- and people are still victimized. Only one conclusion is possible: They are simply not thinking.
This AOL password-and-billing-info scam is an enlightening first example, as it shows that even in a (relatively) safe online environment -- AOL, after all, has a large and well-regulated proprietary "front end" of resources -- the built-in technological defense mechanisms and the zealousness of the regulators can only do so much to prevent fraud. The best defense against internet fraud, as against fraud perpetrated anywhere else, is critical thinking.
For our discussion, we'll keep the definition simple: critical thinking, based in common sense, focuses on establishing facts through primary resources, removing extraneous arguments and fallacies (ad hominems, appeals to emotion), seeking and sifting both corroborations and contradictions, and double-checking everything.
Protecting oneself from unauthorized credit card charges is certainly one very practical application of critical thinking, as the amount lost to such fraud amounts to billions of dollars every year; with the growth of the internet, of course, comes a surge in internet-related and -enabled crimes. And yet there is much greater, perhaps incalculable, damage done by fraudulent news and reporting, hoaxes and pranks, rumors and myths, and to the extent that the supporters and advocates of "liberty, justice, and the American way" assimilate and disseminate bogus data, phony facts, and fictitious figures, they have weakened themselves and their cause. The establishment press is decidedly biased to port, and is hard enough for conservatives and libertarians to deal with when our cases are solid and evidence impervious; when we move into the marketplace of ideas (more like the battlefield of ideologies) with rhetorical weapons that are easily blunted by simple debunking and fact-checking, we are portrayed not only as evil, but stupid, too.
I received an e-mail recently from a dear woman who works for an outfit dedicated to "taking back" their state from the Clintonista Democratic establishment. Much of their material -- they do a daily, sometimes five-times-daily, e-mail "alert" -- is passed along from syndicated columnists, or quoted at length from other publications; some is compiled by friends and associates of the group and the dear lady who runs it, as well. This particular e-mail included a "quote" from Henry Kissinger, alleged to have been taped by a Swiss delegate to a "Bilderberg" [sic] meeting in 1992, which statement purported to show the former Secretary of State favoring a U.N. takeover of America.
I would love to believe the quote, and the reason it is circulating so widely is that many others want to believe it, too. Of course, a few questions immediately arise: Does Kissinger admit to or disavow the statement? Who is this "Swiss delegate"? Why don't we have other tapes of Bilderberger meetings, or secret video shot at a Skull-'n'-Bones or Trilateral Commission conclave, for that matter? Who heard the tape and authenticated the voice? Exactly none of this was addressed.
The fact that a fairly high-profile conservative "pundit" featured the quote on his website assuaged the concerns of far too many people, frankly, as I discovered when I challenged the quote's authenticity. "He's reliable," was a common rejoinder. Not good enough: on word alone, I will trust Jesus Christ; everyone else needs to supply evidence.
Almost as preposterous, but even easier to debunk, is the seemingly immortal rumor about "nickel e-mail" or Postal Service-inspired per-letter charges being forced on Americans by Congress. This message is circulated vigorously by any number of grassroots "liberty" groups and knee-jerk anti-federalists, always concluding with a call to political action, usually letter-writing. What with all the talk abut internet taxation, tax moratoria, and so on, it is at least understandable that people are confused about the topic.
But when people discuss legislation, the facts are supremely easy to check; in fact, just being knowledgeable about the legislative process itself can help separate the facts from the fiction. If a scare letter about some pending legislation doesn't include a bill number or the name of at least one sponsoring Congressman, it's suspect already. But just having a number and/or name doesn't mean the letter is accurate, either. The latest "nickel e-mail" alert I received referred to "Bill 602P" being sponsored by "Congressman Tony Schnell" -- but House bills always begin with "HR" for "House Resolution" and there is no "Tony Schnell" anywhere in the government directory. Oops.
So damaging are some of these "urban legends" and "political myths" to the right's credibility that I have wondered more than once if Norman Lear keeps a stable of underemployed Hollywood hacks working 'round-the-clock concocting bizarre, debunkable rumors to feed to unsuspecting (and, as we've noted, unthinking) right-wing internet mavens. (Perhaps this statement itself will turn up as the political rumor du jour sometime soon.) Then I reflect that, according to the research I've been doing for this (now) three-part series, they don't need to do any of that; the right has done a commendable job, all on its own, of sewing seeds of myth and rumor and reaping harvests of ignorance and ignominy. I, for one, am tired of it, and in the conclusion of this series (Part 3, next week) I will articulate a program of remediation that seeks to equip "all with ears to hear" with the tools necessary to think clearly and, therefore, pursue truth.
Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.
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