Famous Last Words: A Delicious Sting Operation

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.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

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  • Ben Gay

    Very funny, Denny! But it reveals a major flaw in our screening devices.

  • GeorgeM

    Very enjoyable article Denny, thank you. This subject crosses my mind every time I hear "the news." When I was a young ad guy just starting out at McCann, I remember their motto: "Truth. Well told." It became part of my moral mindset in the many years thereafter. I still tease my breaking-news! friends with a raised hand and warning that I get all my news from The Onion.

  • Wash

    Got one like your friend, Denny. Thinks rumor, prejudice, op-ed cartoons, stand-up jokes and any bilious diatribe a-float on the Web is fact. So long as it supports his political notions, that is.

    When I reply–citing Annenburg, PolitiFact, Snopes, even Wikipedia, et al–I let him know from whence comes my "substantiation." It’s up to him to authenticate further. I doubt he ever does. Short of time for this prattle, I’ve only ever called one source personally…who surprisingly admitted claims in his quoted blog were not actual fact!

    But I’m pissed at pop pubs with ledes like, “Scientist says…” followed by partially-baked theory, guess, hope. For serious researchers, though, quite a gulf between peer-reviewed journals bias-unable to handle threats to the Standard Model and “vanity press” organs who publish anything for $$.

  • Fred Lederman

    Denny- A big "Howdy" from the Great State of Texas and a big thank you for bringing to light the ever growing problem of finding credible data often disguised as "facts". Okay, so we can no longer believe Wikipedia; we can’t quote from "reputable" medical/research sources; many polls and studies have been unable to pass the sniff test because of how they sample respondents and phrase questions; what’s next? Should we doubt our elected officials, financial advisors, or, heaven forbid, marketers and sales professionals? Me thinks JFK said it best when he opined, "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." The bottom line is that we are all responsible for what we say and write in an environment of enormous data and content. Caveat emptor.

  • regis

    Thank you for mentioning Wikipedia (the chump maker) in your Takeaways to Consider. I’m amazed at how often Wikipedia is cited as a fact source by writers and broadcasters (professionals as well as all the digitally enabled amateurs). I guess they just won’t use their smart phone to actually call a human being for a verification. Too busy using it to "think out loud" with their twitter comments. Journalism as we knew it is dead. RIP.