For Thanksgiving, Debunk Your Family's Chain Emails

Nov 23, 2011
Originally published on November 25, 2011 1:51 am

At Thanksgiving dinner, there's probably a good chance you'll end up sitting beside your uncle.

You love your uncle, but you could do without all those chain emails that he forwards to you, the ones that claim the government is forcing you to get rid of your light bulbs, that "Obamacare" is going to put a tax on home sales and that President Obama fits the biblical description of the Antichrist. (Note to uncles: We're not singling you out. Chain emails get forwarded by aunts, grandparents and plenty of other relatives.)

So as part of our Message Machine partnership with NPR, PolitiFact has put together this handy guide to chain emails and other viral messages. Hide it under the green bean casserole and you can pull it out if your uncle brings up the chain emails.

You should start by telling tell him that the emails are nearly always wrong. PolitiFact has checked 104 claims from emails and rated 80 percent of them "False" or "Pants on Fire." Only 4 percent of the claims have earned a "True."

The emails, heavy on exclamation points and ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, are typically sent by conservatives who dislike Obama. Lately, though, we have seen a new phenomenon on Facebook, where liberal supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement have been spreading messages, some of which aren't accurate. (More about them in a moment.)

The chain emails cover a few broad themes:

Obama is unpatriotic! E-mails have said Obama complained that the troops were whiners (Pants on Fire), that he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance (False) and that he wants soldiers to take a loyalty oath to him rather than the Constitution (Pants on Fire).

Democrats have passed a secret tax! Some recent emails claim that because of "Obamacare," monthly Medicare premiums will more than double by 2014 (Pants on Fire) and that home sales will be taxed 3.8 percent (Pants on Fire) to pay for the new health care law. Another one in this genre says Obama's finance team is seeking a 1 percent tax on all financial transactions (Pants on Fire).

Perks of office. Another theme in the emails is that members of Congress get excessive perks. The emails say members of Congress get full retirement pay after one term (Pants on Fire) and that congressional staffers and members don't have to repay their student loans (Pants on Fire).

The government is coming for your guns/health data/light bulbs! Some of the conspiracy theories are truly wacky. During the health care debate, one claimed that under the public option for health care coverage, people would be implanted with data-storing microchips (Pants on Fire). A more recent email claimed the government was mandating that everyone get rid of their existing light bulbs (Pants on Fire). Another email said you must list your guns on your tax return (Pants on Fire).

We're not sociologists, so we don't speculate on why conservatives have been spreading most of the chain emails — or why liberals have recently adopted a similar technique on Facebook for messages supporting Occupy Wall Street.

This week, we checked a widely circulated Facebook post that said 1 percent of Americans are millionaires compared with 47 percent of House members and 56 percent of senators. We found the numbers were off, particularly for the share of Americans who are millionaires (actually 9 percent), so we rated it Half True.

Likewise, many people were posting a message that said Republicans in Congress have introduced dozens of bills on religion, marriage, abortion and gun control, but zero bills on job creation. We found that was ridiculously false because the blog post it was based on included bills from both parties and there was no category for job creation. We rated it Pants on Fire.

The Facebook messages and the chain emails have this in common: They are spread by people who are passionate about their political beliefs. That's not a new phenomenon, of course, but what's different today is that people can spread their passion so quickly, to so many people, through emails and Facebook. They impulsively forward the emails and postings without bothering to see if they are accurate.

So tell your uncle to stop passing along the false emails — or check PolitiFact first. But it would be great if he could just pass the mashed potatoes.

Bill Adair is editor of PolitiFact.com and Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Chances are you've had a family member send you and the rest of the family a chain email making strong political claims. Or maybe you've had a friend post a political claim on Facebook and you notice it's being reposted again and again and again by others. Since some of these screeds could be repeated at your Thanksgiving table, we wanted to check whether they are true or not, so we've brought in Bill Adair, who's made a special study of these chain emails. He is editor of the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact.com. He's also part of NPR's project we call The Message Machine. Hi, Bill.

BILL ADAIR: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's jump right into some of the examples that we're talking about here. Here is a chain email that you've looked up that involves President Obama's health care law, and there's a claim here that says: Under the new health care bill, did you know all real estate transactions will be subject to a 3.8 percent sales tax? Holy cow, I didn't know that.

ADAIR: Because it's not true. This is a sort of classic genre of the chain emails that we checked. There's this sneaky tax that you haven't heard about that's going to get you. And the reason you haven't heard about it is usually it's not true or they're taking something that applies to a very small group, as in the case here. They're referring to a Medicare tax in the health care bill that affects only the wealthiest individuals and families and only their investment income, and say it's going to apply to everybody and all home sales. Not true.

INSKEEP: Every home sale - OK. And that's normal for these chain emails you've found, isn't it? I mean, you found - what percentage of them as you've checked them over time have actually turned out to be accurate?

ADAIR: Only four percent have been rated true. So it's a safe bet if you get one that it's not accurate.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, let's plow on and see what we come up with her. This has to do with Congress. Of course, Congress has an approval rating as low as it's ever been, and I'm sure it will be even worse after people hear this quote: Monday on Fox News they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans. What an outrage, if true.

ADAIR: It is an outrage. This falls into another theme we see a lot, which is Congress is getting a lot of perks. But in this case it's not true. Members of Congress and their staff members have to pay back loans like everybody else. The only thing that's even related to this is a very small federal program that actually will pay back student loans as part of the compensation to recruit new employees - not what they're talking about here though. So that one got a pants on fire.

INSKEEP: Where does a really specific claim like that come from?

ADAIR: See, I think that's the genius of these chain emails, is they start with a germ of truth and then they twist it way out of proportion. And then the chain email will kind of take on a life of its own. I think of them like organisms. They'll evolve and facts will change slightly. They'll even take on defense mechanisms with lines like I checked this out and it's true, you know, I checked this on Snopes, and it's true...

INSKEEP: Which is the fact-checking website. OK.

ADAIR: And in fact, Snopes or PolitiFact say it's false. But, you know, it's a defense mechanism.

INSKEEP: What they're saying is don't bother to check this out, I already did that for you.

ADAIR: Exactly. Never mind the man behind the curtain.

INSKEEP: OK. A lot of people have passed around a claim that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has sponsored zero bills that would lead to job growth. In fact, this blog post here has a bunch of numbers. Quote: Republicans have introduced 44 bills on abortion, 99 on religion, 71 on family relationships, etc., etc., and zero on job creation. Is that true?

ADAIR: It's not, and this a lot of us saw on Facebook circulated by many of our liberal friends. But what they did was they took a statistic that was accurate overall for Republicans and Democrats and attributed it to just Republicans. The other big flaw here, though, is...

INSKEEP: What is a bill for job creation?

ADAIR: Exactly. And so they're saying there were zero bills for job creation. Well, it turns out that's not a category. So there are no bills in that non-existent category. But, of course, the Republicans would say that many of their bills involving tax cuts would lead to job creation, just as the Democratic bills in government spending and other programs are their job creation bills.

INSKEEP: President Obama's so-called jobs bill is actually something that deals specifically with tax cuts, with infrastructure spending, and that sort of thing.

ADAIR: And it does not show up in that non-existent category either.

INSKEEP: There's one more that you've got here that maybe falls in a little bit of a gray area as I look at the numbers, but it has to do with Occupy Wall Street and with concerns about income inequality and specifically about the huge salaries that CEO are pulling down. And it says that if you compare the average CEO to the average worker, the CEO is making $475 for every single dollar the worker is making. Sounds pretty awful.

ADAIR: It does, and this has truly gone viral. We traced it back to a paper that some students did for a professor many years ago - like six years ago. And in fact, we couldn't find sourcing for the comparison to other countries. The accurate part of the message is that the ratio is high in the United States, that CEOs obviously get...

INSKEEP: They are making a lot more money than people.

ADAIR: But here there's nothing to back up their number, and yet this is a message that has gotten forwarded again and again and again on Facebook. And, again, it's about passion.

INSKEEP: But that's one of the reasons that I say it's a gray area, and it's an interesting and almost sad example, because you have people who want to make this point that CEOs are making a lot more. Whether you think it's good or bad, you can document that. And yet people go with far more exaggerated numbers that sort of discredit them even as they try to make the point.

ADAIR: In social media it's so easy to just click share with all your Facebook friends. Why bother checking out the facts if it looks right, if it supports your point of view? People are forwarding it. And I think you can pass along falsehoods much more easily than you could in the past.

INSKEEP: Well, I've been clicking on share with PolitiFact.com, and Bill Adair, thanks for coming by once again.

ADAIR: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.