Thursday, September 11, 2008

This Just in: Sarah Palin Shoots Lovable Moose!

In the last week, I have received numerous e-mails from friends, and friends of friends about Sarah Palin. Some of them are hysteria and some of them hysterical.

They have brought to my attention: a forwarded letter written by a fellow Wasilla Alaskan who knows Palin, a list of books Palin wanted to ban from the Wasilla library and various compromising photos. A quick check of, and apparently the only e-mail out of the bunch that wasn’t faked, was the one with the letter from her fellow Wasillian. In fact, Sarah Palin is currently the number one focus of Internet urban legends on Obama need not worry though, he is number two.

I’m not personally a fan of Palin. But all these thoughtless chain e-mails are beginning to annoy me. Thoughtless? Yes. Aside from the simple fact that I am being spammed by my own address book contacts, it seems like the amount of critical thinking and responsible discourse disseminated on the Web is reaching an all time low, and it bothers me.

Magazines and newspapers are falling on hard times as ad dollars migrate to the Web. Television news programs have become just as polarized politically as the two parties. So, many of us are turning increasingly to the Internet as a source for information.

But why not focus on the Photoshop fakers and disinformationists as the problem rather than Internet users? Simply because ubiquitous software allows almost anyone to easily create fantasy from reality, today. It would be virtually impossible to stop the flow.

Why would we want to curtail humor and parody anyway? Some really great humor and commentary is being generated with Photoshop and and creative video and music mash-ups. It’s an emerging phenomenon that has the potential for helping to bring about that ground-up change Senator Obama has been talking about. Politicians can disdain the media, but they better not disdain the masses.

For some really great insight into this, go to a recent blog entitled Photoshop for Democracy by Henry Jenkins, the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. He has included some funny examples collected from this election. By the way, I highly recommend his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. An updated paperback edition is due out October 1. It's a fun read that will really get you thinking about the new world we live in.

O.K., so I'm asking everyone to use their bullshit detectors and exercise good judgment about spreading fraudmail. But what is the fine line between parody and a fraud? Take this photo of Palin for instance. It’s a Photoshopped fake. Many people would think it's pretty funny if they saw it on The Onion Web site or in MAD magazine. Context is important, however. Passed around and published out of context, this photo looks like an entirely believable image. Given a new context in an e-mail message, it could easily be turned into a smear. We can’t and shouldn’t stop the creative videos, images and writing. But we can, and must, be skeptical of them in every context except parody.

The great promise of our culture is that everyone can creatively exercise their right to free speech. But we need to realize that there is no such thing as passive audience anymore. We are participants. Therefore, all of us must begin thinking a little like journalists — do some fact checking and clearly label and attribute doctored images and fictitious writing as such if we pass them along.

To put it more simply: If you're the type of person who would normally spread false rumors about people you don't like, then go ahead and send any kind of e-mail you want. It's your prerogative. But if you wouldn't normally behave that way in real life, why do it with an e-mail?

If we all work together, we can take our inboxes and search engines back.

Good Web sites for fact checking:
Feel free to leave additional Web resources for fact checking in comments.

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