There have been chain letters since long before email, though I've never even met a person who has actually received one of the snail-mail sort. Today, however, I'd feel safe betting my lunch money that every single person I know who has an email account, has been forwarded one within the last 24 hours. Increasingly, this device is being utilized to inject knowingly false and potentially-damaging information into the national political debate. Propaganda is an important tool for those with fascist interests. Those who aid and abet them simply because the message supports their political biases are carrying someone else's water down a very dark road.
Every week I get forwarded a number of these emails, the vast majority of which purport to prove something dastardly about the President, usually asking why, as a member of the media, I'm assisting in this vast cover up. There's the one about he and his wife having suspiciously “surrendered” their license to practice law under questionable circumstances, a completely fabricated charge. There's the one that claims to have been sent by a Blue Cross agent, warning his clients of Medicare plan increases set to take effect, November 7, but only if the President is reelected – again totally made up.
Another gives a fabricated account of the President explaining on Meet the Press why he doesn't do the pledge of allegiance or wear a lapel pin, which takes a small portion of a satirical column written by a conservative pundit and passes it along as an actual news report – leaving out the part where the writer makes it clear he's being facetious. Then of course there are the litany of birther emails, which claim to offer irrefutable proof that President Obama is some sort of Manchurian candidate planted into the system in order to turn the United States into a socialist country or implement Sharia law or abdicate our sovereignty to some global New World Order, usually involving that bastion of evil, the United Nations.
The prevalence of such fairy tales has spawned an entire industry of debunkers, intelligent and resourceful individuals who look at each myth as a challenge and set about not only disproving it, but documenting where the lie came from, different variations of the lie that have been told, as well as any shred of truth that might have been manipulated to create it. As a result, it takes about 11 seconds to determine whether one is true, assuming the absolute absurdity of what's claimed in the first place, hasn't convinced you that spending those 11 seconds in such a manner would be a waste of time.
Unfortunately, it seems that only those offended actually do take the time to track down the truth, and those who originate such communications aren't targeting them anyway. They're looking for people who are either foolish enough to believe and propagate any statement which affirms their own beliefs no matter the plausibility, or those who believe that as long as the ends justify the means, truth doesn't matter.
Every society is bound to suffer fools, but it's the second group that I find so disconcerting – people who ceaselessly proclaim their patriotism, yet go out of their way to deliberately mislead their fellow countrymen who apparently cannot be trusted to be guided by their own conclusions. This mindset, as well as the dangerous confederacy of a nation's fascists and its rubes were a major component of Germany's transition to Nazi Germany.
Hitting the FWD button on such communications might seem harmless if you believe that you're sharing useful information with everyone you know – especially if you think that it's being deliberately kept from them. However, we should all hold damaging information to a very high threshold of skepticism and consider what exactly we are contributing to if we just hit FWD and send every negative thread along to every like-minded person in our circle. The act, as benign as it may seem, is literally the modern equivalent of signing on as a volunteer propaganda agent, helping to advance fascist ideals, just because the fascists purport to want the same end result that you do.
An intelligent person might argue that such intellectually-vacant communications play to such a low denominator as to mitigate their effect. But their prevalence and endurance (some well-traveled email myths have been circulating for nearly a decade, reaching millions of readers) would suggest otherwise, as would polls regarding public awareness. The Affordable Care Act, collusion between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as well as the existence of WMDs in Iraq are all instances where public opinion ran impossibly askew of the well-documented facts, and people reported believing things that not only were demonstrably false, but hadn't been reported in the mainstream press.
So, who is responsible for such a misinformed public, and why do they seem so eager to be told lies? I'd argue that there are several factors at play. First, we live in challenged, uncertain and exceedingly complicated times. People have a right to be anxious. Our global financial system is leveraged to an unsustainable degree and vulnerable to collapse. Both energy and food supplies are tight enough that disruptions can be caused by even small hiccups, and globalized enough that large regional conflicts could lead to severe panics or worse. Add to that the estimate that we could add two billion more humans to the competition for those resources by the year 2030, which might also stretch already-taxed potable water supplies to their limit, and that the portion of our society that is elderly will soon double and you can see we have our work cut out for us.
Faced with so many complex challenges, it's tempting to submit to simplified solutions and claims that our worries boil down to one ultimate evil – a person, political party or ideology. If we can only stop them, righting the ship will be easy, because all of our people have pure intentions. They love our country. They will save us. It's also easier to fabricate the villainous intent of others than it is to explain viable solutions to real problems – especially if your intent and the ensuing results aren't necessarily in the best interest of the majority.
Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister for Nazi Germany, wrote the playbook for controlling the mass conscious through the message. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” Goebbels famously explained. “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Our leaders have been telling us for decades that if we continue to cut tax rates, especially for large corporations and the extraordinarily rich, they will grow confident enough to spend and invest, and we will all benefit from the ensuing growth. Yet over and over, we've slashed taxes and simply added to our deficits, while real wages have fallen for the evaporating middle class and living-wage jobs have become harder to come by.
Meanwhile, corporate profits have soared and the wealth gap has expanded at breakneck speed. Banking and Wall Street have been continuously deregulated, ostensibly to allow modernization the ability to facilitate that same growth. Yet all such deregulation has wrought is financial havoc, where the illusion of purchasing power for the masses was cast through toxic debt devices from which those draining the 401ks and pension funds continue to reap windfall profits. Again, we're told more deregulation is the solution – not less. They tell us that it's uncertainty that's causing banks and big corporations to prosper without creating jobs, not the lack of domestic consumer demand from our hand-to-mouth masses.
War after war has been put on the national credit card, adding to the debt we are instructed to be so concerned about, supposedly to keep us safe from the terrorists. Yet for all our blood spilled and treasure squandered, the world is less stable since we've delivered the sword. It would seem that The State is having a difficult time “shielding the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.” Skeptical of calls for more of the same, less Americans seem to be delivering it – moving instead to the ultimate evil argument.
When The State doesn't have answers, it usually makes up new questions. Its ability to control the topic of debate is key and this is where the propaganda campaign comes in. Again we look to Herr Goebbels who said, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” – sound familiar? As long as we stick to the bullet points they assign us, we'll never get around to questioning why both sides are so eager to be able to lock up American citizens and detain them indefinitely in military prisons; why they talk about investing in education to create tomorrow's engineers, but not about why they're granting unneeded H-1B visas that allow companies to import those who will work for less when logistics don't allow them to offshore a particular job; why we'll talk about drilling for oil, but not about the domestic glut that's already accumulated, but hasn't driven prices down, or how to stop speculation from pushing it up to a price point that has no relationship to demand.
As long as the homogenized corporate media, whose parent companies are often raking in tidy profits from real policy issues impacting middle-class Americans, sticks to the script, then the slight of hand is all the easier to pull off. They get the ball rolling by simply ignoring everything but the authorized topics. Then each side has a litany of opinion shows, where their seven-figure pundits blow hot air about the merit of each side's position on either topic, and the next day the newspapers weigh in with a slightly beefier treatment of the same bland fare, most of which are biased, slanted and lack intellectual honesty. From there, the slime slides down to the gutters of AM radio, where there's much less accountability, and it begins to form the basis of a philosophy that can now accept the complete fabrication that later arrives in the email inbox, that must just be one more thing the media is ignoring.
Who is at fault that we're not debating whether the economic collapse caused by oil skyrocketing to $400 a barrel in light of a war with Iran, would actually be more dangerous than one more country getting a nuclear weapon; a repeal of the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act to protect our banking system; the real problems with Social Security and Medicare and measures beyond cutting benefits and raising eligibility requirements; ending oil subsidies; how to stop insanely rich Americans from hiding wealth in foreign tax havens and corporations from “relocating” their headquarters to such places – all to rob much needed revenues from our beleaguered treasury? Don't blame the politicians – we elected them. Don't blame the corporations – they're acting in their own self-interest. Just ask yourself the simple question of who benefits by you passing on the message, each time one of those ridiculous emails ends up in you inbox. Chances are pretty good that it isn't you. At best, you're playing a silly game; at worst, you're being used as a pawn in a rather serious one.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.