In normal times, the Internet is a vicious rumor mill. Just today, a tall-tale that Facebook.com was shutting down in March successfully made the rounds.
But after a national tragedy like this weekend's shooting in Tucson, it can feel like pursuit of simple facts has been overrun by a something like a computer virus that spreads exaggerations, lies and distortions. Even as the national media was trying to determine if Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was alive or dead, politically motivated misinformation that suited nearly every agenda imaginable began spreading fast and furious.
There were claims that Sarah Palin had deleted her controversial "Don't Retreat -- Instead RELOAD!" Tweet from last March. She hadn't. An apparent fake Facebook page attributed to alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner emerged, claiming President Barack Obama was one of his heroes. Another profile identified him as a Tea Party member -- but it misspelled his name. There were also images of a voter registration record claiming he was a Republican; but the record misspelled Tucson. In fact, he is a registered independent.
In hindsight, misspellings or other obvious errors should make Internet users quickly discount these information sources as false. But as anyone who runs a quick Twitter search can quickly see, there's a new Internet rumor fool born seemingly every nanosecond. And during times of crisis, debunking sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org -- which act a bit like truth anti-virus products-- can't possibly keep up with the exponential virus-like spread of rumors. People often mindlessly pass on e-mails or Tweets that fit their political world-view or the reality they root for.
"The Internet is clearly a much more dangerous avenue for spreading rumors and deceptive information," said Brooks Jackson, spokesman for FactCheck.org. "Like-minded people pass them on because it sounds right to them...It vastly improves on old whispering campaigns."
In the past, political operatives often whispered to others about a candidate's drinking problem or an affair, but that rumor had to spread in a linear fashion, from one person to another person. Also, the rumor would degrade because of the "telephone effect," as it was continually altered each time it was passed along. But on the Web, rumors are spread with "100 percent fidelity," Jackson said, which lends a lot to their credibility.
And of course, the virus metaphor holds neatly when you think about how quickly inaccurate information can spread exponentially online.
Also, many readers consider the sender, rather than the source, when they encounter rumors. A Tweet sent by a trusted co-worker might bring with it an overly generous air of credibility, and the reader might not carefully assess the original source of the information.
"Your crazy Uncle Harry is going to forward you all sorts of things," Jackson said. "You might believe the person who sent it to you because you know them, but often, the ultimate source is not identified."
Jackson, whose site is devoted to carefully debunking false political statements with careful, time-consuming research, has advice for readers who might encounter rumors about the Arizona shooting in the coming days.
"If the ultimate source is not identified, you can delete these things without reading them, and you will be better informed than if you open them," he said. "In our experience, well more than 90 percent of them turn out to be false or so completely distorted that they leave a false impression."