Tom Sawyer Lives

Tom Sawyer lives. He (she, or more likely they) is sitting somewhere in front of a computer screen. Whitewashing a fence is not the order of the day, of course. Nor is an apple, a kite, or a one-eyed kitten his pay-off for “allowing” his friends to do his work. Our modern-day Tom has lower goals: Making people look like fools is, and he succeeds in spades.

Back when email forwards were the bane of our inboxes, Tom decided to have a little fun. He compiled a list of Coca-Cola attributes that included the following: Coke dissolves a nail or a tooth overnight. State troopers keep Coke in their trunks to clean blood off the highway. The Coca-Cola script is Arabic when read backward and reveals an anti-Muslim message.  If you never received this, you have no friends who care about you. If you never forwarded it, you’re a better woman than I. Finally I got to thinking. A nail dissolved overnight? Really? Of course not. Even if the rest of the list was reasonable, the presence of one item so outrageous should have given pause. And so I learned to fact check.

We all like to think we’re too smart for Tom, but we’re not. Wanting to get something for nothing is just human nature, and Bill Gates has lots of money to share. Why not do it via Facebook?

Lately, Facebook has been the scene of a particularly irritating activity: People posting bogus stories about political opponents. While some have a kernel of truth (Jane Fonda did visit Hanoi), details are false and inflammatory (nothing she did resulted in the death of American prisoners). Eric Berne’s 1964 book Games People Play revealed details of some of the ways people interact. One of those games is called Ain’t It Awful. We like to complain, and we like to blame others. This helps nobody.

In a Mother Jones article titled “Are Liberals Too Smug? Nah, We’re Condescending,” Kevin Drum skewers the left for mocking the right, especially people who are not as smart as they are. He then observes that the right are ripe for outrage. That outrage smacks of an eagerness to believe things about opponents that simply aren’t true.

Here’s where Tom gets going. Last spring, as he does every year, Tom wrote a piece on the cancellation of the National Day of Prayer. Exactly how he put it out for consumption is above my pay grade, but other people shared it, and outraged comments piled up. “How dare President Obama…” Every year, and it’s still not true. The week I saw C.S. Lewis using the phrase “obsessing on” in a faux letter from Uncle Screwtape. He’d never…well, you know.

Telling people they’ve posted something erroneous doesn’t alter behavior much. Some even reply that a particular article may not be true, but the essence of the information is. You can’t trust the liberal media or or higher education. The list goes on.

So what’s to be done? Frustration with gullibility is pointless. Stamping out individual fires with debunking counterposts is unpopular. Inviting people to think seems rude. (Not that I have done that, of course.)

Let’s consider this: Check the facts before sharing. Always. Ask yourself how you’re going to look if what you share is a hoax. Read the newspaper (shameless plug). Watch a non-political television station occasionally. Are the media perfect? Of course not. Remember the boy in the balloon?  But if Judge Judy was going to be nominated for the Supreme Court, it’s more likely you would have heard it more widely than on this afternoon’s Facebook feed. Don’t be gullible. Let Tom have his way with someone else.

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