Famous Last Words : A Delicious Sting OperationFebruary 2014 By Denny Hatch
There's this guy I know in Denver—a political extremist, who forwards me the most scurrilous, inflammatory stories to validate his pet hates. His emails are laced with comments such as, "OMG!" or "See, I told you so!"
Trouble is, when I put a phrase from his diatribe in quotation marks and paste it into Google, I get a bunch of cuckoo entries. Bloggers, screamers and nutcases have picked up the story and repeated it verbatim to and from each other. The busy little Google spiders capture this fiction and add it to the vast maw of data in the ether. A couple of Google entries, and it fogs the mirror. With six entries it grows legs. Fifteen Google entries turn it into a living, breathing monster that becomes harder and harder to disprove.
Can it be found on the website of a legitimate newspaper, broadcast station, wire service or commentator? Nah.
Eventually, it may show up on the Annenberg Public Policy Center's factcheck.org. This website is honchoed by widely respected gumshoe journalist Brooks Jackson, who will do in-depth research and expose the story for what it is—a load of hooey.
By then it's too late. It will have made its way into the speeches and writings of the extreme left or extreme right. Nobody bothered to check it out.
"A lie told often enough becomes truth," wrote Vladimir Lenin. It was later quoted by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda.
"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," Mark Twain said.
It's the same principle as a forged Picasso painting. As it is bought and sold over the years, it acquires a longer and longer pedigree—so-called provenance in the art world. After years in the marketplace, it becomes the real thing, no questions asked, even though it's an out-'n'-out fake.
The Glorious Sting
In October 2013, Harvard researcher John Bohannon, Ph.D., revealed what happened when he sent bogus articles to scientific and medical journals all over the world. Here's the lede of his gleeful mea culpa in Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):