What’s in Your Inbox?
E-Hoaxes plague Catholics as well as secular e-mailers.
by Tim Drake | Source:
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Was the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” created as a secret code by persecuted Catholics? Was the Titanic cursed because its hull number read NO POPE backwards? Did the campaign manager for George Bush pay Church officials to refer to his charge as a “saint”?
Your e-mail might give you the wrong answer to these questions. And it might do so while demanding that you take some action.
The late Franciscan Sister Helen Mrosla found out the hard way how the Internet could be used to transform a touching story into a chain letter. In 1998, the magazine Proteus ran a story she had written about attending the funeral of one of her former students who had died in Vietnam.
With e-mail, the story took on a life of its own. It was embellished and began to be circulated with promises of good luck if the story was forwarded to others.
Sister Helen wasn’t happy with that. She felt it cheapened the story. She passed away on Sept. 1, 2000, but the story continues to be circulated. It’s just one of thousands of e-rumors, chain prayers, hoaxes and urban legends filling Internet users’ in-boxes.
“E-rumors and forwarded e-mails are an extension of things we do every day in other ways,” explained Rich Buhler, founder of the popular debunking website TruthorFiction.com, based in Orange County, Calif. “We all love to tell ‘wow’ stories. The Internet has given us a way to network and forward them exponentially.”
Buhler, a minister in the Foursquare church, first became interested in urban legends 40 years ago while working as a reporter for CBS. An urban legend is modern folklore consisting of distorted or exaggerated stories thought to be factual by those who circulate them.
The key ingredients to most urban legends are “a strong basic story appeal, a foundation in actual belief and a meaningful message or moral,” said Jan Brunvald, author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings.
For Catholics and other people of faith, urban legends might not be what’s filling in-boxes as much as chain prayers, where the sender typically requests recipients to forward the e-mail to 12 other people. It’s usually accompanied by a promise of material blessings for those who comply, as well as a warning of dire consequences for those who break the chain.
“A lot of these chain prayers and blessings border more on superstition than faith,” said Buhler. “The last person who sent it to us is the most important filter. If that’s someone we have good feelings about, that can pre-qualify what they’ve sent us.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. … Thus detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity” (No. 2479).
“Detraction and calumny are sins, of course, whether written or spoken — that includes e-mail. The usual conditions applying,” said Father Peter Laird, vice rector and assistant professor of moral theology at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. “‘What is my intention?’ — and the further we get from the original e-mail — i.e. the person who put the claims in the public sphere — it would seem the less culpability we might have, save from the indecency of filling someone’s inbox with forwarded messages.”
“Some are a morality story, but others are based on fear,” said Buhler. “Others are based on the hope of causing harm to an individual or company.”
As an example, Buhler cited the e-rumor that continues to circulate about Pepsi supposedly removing the words “One Nation Under God” from a patriotic beverage can design. It’s false.
The e-mails that Buhler finds most perplexing are chain prayers or “blessings” that end with a threat.
“They’ll say something like, ‘If you don’t forward this, you’re not proud of Jesus Christ,’” said Buhler. “There’s a mean-spiritedness about some of them that makes you wonder why people believe them and why they would forward them.”
But forward them they do — sometimes with unfortunate results.
Buhler recalled the e-rumor about supposedly missing 15-year-old Evan Trembley of Wichita Falls, Texas. Trembley, it turns out, started the e-rumor about himself as a joke.
The Wichita Falls police department was inundated with telephone calls, and the Trembley family was forced to disconnect their phone.
A large number of the e-rumors have a spiritual dimension. One popular chain prayer is reportedly a prayer written by St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It asks the receiver to forward the prayer on to 17 friends within 15 minutes in order to be blessed.
That e-mail provoked a strong response from North Carolina catechetical instructor Patrick O’Hannigan on his blog The Paragraph Farmer.
“I distrust anything that treats God like a late-night infomercial for the Acme Wish-Granting Fairy Guild,” wrote O’Hannigan. “Chain mail like this never explains where its magic numbers come from. Why 17 people? Why 15 minutes?”
One website that some feel borders on promotion of the sensational is Michael Brown’s SpiritDaily.com. It features daily links to news stories, reported apparitions and photographs of supposed supernatural phenomena.
Asked what safeguards he has in place to prevent fraudulent information from being passed on, Brown said, “While we have no intellectual safeguard, we have the safeguard of prayer and Mass and fasting.”
“The supernatural — whether it’s Fatima or Lourdes or saints’ miracles — will always be elusive,” said Brown. “You’re not dealing with the physical realm, and there will always be deceptions.”
“We give the supernatural the benefit of the doubt because no one else does,” added Brown. “The religious press has all but eliminated the mystical. We’re Spirit Daily, not Religion Daily.”
While cautious, Brown admitted that it’s possible that he has inadvertently posted fraudulent material. He said that he receives far more material than he posts on the site. He added that his regimen of frequent prayer, fasting and daily Mass attendance helps him discern whether or not to post photos of alleged supernatural phenomena.
“If we have any doubt that it’s good, we discard it,” said Brown. “The supernatural usually inflects itself in such a way that there’s always some doubt. That’s because there has to be room for faith.”
Brown has used his site to discredit supposed supernatural photos that have been digitally altered.
Buhler doesn’t feel that Christians are any more vulnerable to e-rumors than any other group.
“Every group has its own sensitivities and vulnerabilities,” said Buhler.
Buhler said that the answer is for e-mail users to check things out at websites like his before they forward messages.
“I’m encouraging everyone to take a journalist’s stance,” said Buhler. “The closer we are to a firsthand source, the more likely something is to be true. Every time you send an e-mail you’ve become a publisher on the largest publishing machine that’s ever existed.
“If someone is forwarding us information about someone we don’t know, we need to go check that out before we forward it.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Source: National Catholic Register - February 17-23, 2008 Issue