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:
Here's our year-end roundup 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.
Ever since the 2008 presidential election, we've seen a healthy dose of viral emails that bash the president. We find as the vitriol level rises, so, too, does the egregiousness of the false claims.
One popular email said Obama was giving Alaskan islands to Russia as part of some kind of secret agreement, adding, "Can you believe the nerve of this guy?" But that question is better asked of the anonymous author of this bogus tirade. The islands, which are much closer to Siberian shores than the Alaskan coast, have never been claimed by the United States. One conservative California activist has been arguing for decades that the islands should belong to the U.S., but over the past 85 years, or longer, no U.S. president has staked a claim to them.
Readers also asked us about Facebook postings claiming that Obama had a plan to eliminate private retirement accounts and create a "national retirement system." But there's no such plan. The claim comes from a conservative, anti-Obama group that has pushed its misguided speculation about legislation that would require employers without retirement plans to set up private IRAs for their workers. Employers would automatically deposit a percentage of wages, but employees could opt out of the program. The idea for these "automatic IRAs" originally came from scholars at the Brookings Institution and the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2006.
Another chain email claims Barack and Michelle Obama had to "surrender" their law licenses to avoid ethics charges. But that's made up, too. No ethics charges or proceedings have been brought against either of them. Instead, they both voluntarily inactivated their licenses, negating the need to take continuing education courses and pay annual fees. They can practice law again anytime they choose.
Another viral falsehood claims that Obama's early records are "sealed." They're not. The email lists several documents that are public — Obama's Selective Service registration, his Illinois state Senate record, his medical records, and, perhaps not surprising for a viral claim, his birth certificate. The message says Obama's college records are "sealed" by a court, but instead Obama, like presidential candidates before him, hasn't released them.
A false claim about the stimulus law also has made the email rounds. It claims that Obama gave stimulus money to China to build U.S. bridges. Not true at all. Whoever wrote this email distorted an ABC News report, which only mentioned federal money (not the stimulus) that California officials had turned down to avoid "Buy American" laws. It was the state that hired a Chinese contractor.
This message also gave us a peek into how distortions grow as emails are forwarded and those with a less-than-high regard for the truth tweak them. Readers first forwarded us messages about the Chinese firms building U.S. bridges — no mention of the president. Then, we received emails that wrongly said stimulus money was involved. Then, somewhere along the forwarding chain, someone changed the message to say Obama was to blame. Some emails carried the line "I pray all the unemployed see this and cast their votes accordingly in 2012!" All the unemployed — or anyone else — would need to do to debunk this bogusness is to watch the original ABC News report, which doesn't mention the stimulus, or blame the president.
'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.
Vote Rigging? Not So Much.
Many readers asked us if the fix was in before voters even headed to the polls — asking if Mitt Romney's son Tagg owned electronic voting machines in the pivotal state of Ohio. (We received questions from readers, not a full-fledged viral email, in this case.) But there was no evidence that Tagg Romney's company, Solamere Capital, had invested in the voting-machine company Hart InterCivic, nor does Solamere own it. Hart InterCivic's machines, by the way, were in two of Ohio's 88 counties.
A day after Obama won reelection, a blog article started circulating, claiming that military absentee ballots were delayed and not counted, which swung the vote for the president. But that story came from a satirical bit on a "faux news" site. Whether this attempt at humor is funny is a matter of opinion, of course, but many readers didn't get — or didn't want to get — the joke. "We are in no way, shape, or form, a real news outlet," the site, called The Duffel Blog, warns. It serves up "military humor, funny military pictures, and faux news."
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 and 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.
Distortions on General Motors
General Motors found itself caught up in a viral spiral this year. One message pointed to a YouTube video claiming the automaker was becoming "China Motors" and using taxpayer bailout dollars to do it. But GM remains firmly incorporated and headquartered on U.S. soil. Its sales in China, the largest auto sales market in the world, have been growing — both before and after the bailout. GM was the largest foreign car company there in 2008, pre-bailout. And it has been expanding sales in both China and the U.S. since it was restructured in 2009.
Another email wrongly said that "79% of GM's sales last month were government purchased," and claimed those government sales were the reason for GM's positive sales figures. But all fleet sales, not just to governments, accounted for under 33 percent of sales for that month. GM sales to government fleets were up 79 percent year over year, not in one month.
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.
Alive and Kicking
Some false viral claims continue to circulate, years after they first surfaced. In 2010, we first knocked down a false claim that the Affordable Care Act instituted a 3.8 percent "sales tax" on homes. But we found ourselves beating it back again this year. The truth is this tax affects only net investment income of individuals earning more than $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples). It's not a tax on sales, but on profit — and only profit that exceeds $250,000 ($500,000 for couples) for a primary residence. The National Association of Realtors has been trying to stop the spread of this nonsense for years.
That chestnut was paired in an email this year with another old falsehood: the imaginary claim that the health care law causes monthly Medicare premiums to more than double. But the law doesn't change how Medicare premiums are calculated, as we first reported in 2011, and the figure hyped by this email — that premiums would shoot up to $247 in 2014 — is nowhere close to the truth. Medicare officials say the real number will be $112.10, less than half of the made-up number being passed through email chains.
Three years ago, we debunked an email claiming that Obama wanted to ban the possession of guns through a United Nations treaty. But this year, the message started popping up again in our inbox. The truth is that the treaty in question pertains to international exporting and importing, and it's still in the discussion stage among various countries. The State Department, however, has said it wouldn't support anything that conflicts with the Second Amendment or covers domestic transfer of firearms.
We urge readers to purge their inboxes of this malicious misinformation. If it seems too outrageous to be believed, we say follow that instinct. Curious about the truth? Pick a few keywords from the message and use the search function on our website. There's a good chance we've already debunked it and posted a response on our Viral Spiral page.
FactCheck.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit "consumer advocate" for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics