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The View from Here

Is skepticism a virtue? The media-watching magazine, Brill’s Content, thinks that it is. The little mantra is printed on its cover and lauded throughout in columns and

analyses. And whether or not you like the magazine or think that it does a good job of being skeptical or watching news organizations do business, a healthy dose of

skepticism isn’t a bad way to cruise through our data-saturated lives.

American society has embraced an “information is power” worldview, and it has changed the way we learn, work and play. Technology, and specifically the

proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels, the Web and e-mail, have put vast amounts of information a mere click of the mouse or remote control away.

Along the way, we’ve lost the ability to differentiate between valuable information and junk. Commentators have bemoaned the loss of wisdom in our culture. Now,

we simply know stuff. Factoids. We’re good at trivia. Forget Solomon. It’s all about Regis.

Case in point: forwarded e-mails. You know the ones I’m talking about…FWD: Re: VIRUS WARNING!!! DON’T OPEN TOFU ATTACHMENT!!! YOU’LL

DIE!!! That’s the subject line, or something equally hysterical. The message will have come from a well-intentioned friend of yours and warn you of impending doom if

you receive a certain e-mail attachment and open it. Or it might be the one that guarantees you money from Microsoft as part of a grand e-mail tracking experiment.

Or maybe it’s the one warning you about AIDS-tainted needles in movie theatre seats, at ATMs or gas pumps.

Lies, lies, lies. Or just old urban legends dressed up for the Internet age.

One of the most persistent forwarded messages is about a proposed tax on e-mails. A year or so ago, someone forwarded this one to me and thought that it’d be a

great story for us. Sure would be, I thought. If it was true. It’s not. And it’s been floating around the Web for years. And it’s been denied for years. Of course, being

bogus didn’t stop it from surfacing during the recent U.S. Senate debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio in New York.

Here’s the account from Wired.com’s Declan McCullagh:

Count the two major-party contenders for New York’s Senate seat among the thousands who have fallen for one of the Internet’s oldest hoaxes.

That’s right: Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio are adamantly opposed to bill 602P, a hair-raising proposal by scheming legislators hoping to tax every

piece of email sent or received.

Never mind that there is no bill 602P in Congress, and that the federal government has previously condemned the alert as an unusually virulent urban legend.

But neither Clinton nor Lazio knew that, and both angrily denounced 602P in response to a question during a debate (Oct. 8).

Oh, well. At least they opposed it.

And while we’re on a political bent, have you heard that the Republicans are going to dump Dick Cheney from the GOP ticket? I bet you’ve seen this one. I bet a lot

of folks bought it. Here’s the text just in case the message hasn’t made it to your inbox:

I just heard a rumor from a good source. The Republican party is feeling that Cheney is a liability on the ticket. There’s a rumor that a few weeks prior to the election

in a desperate attempt to win, Cheney will resign because of a trumped-up heart problem or potential “threat to his health.”

Then either John McCain or Colin Powell will be asked to come on the ticket and save the party. This move is afoot in top circles and to try to squelch it PLEASE

send this letter to as many people as you can. If we get the rumor out on the internet, they won’t be able to do their calculated move without repercussions.

Could it happen? Sure. Anything’s possible in politics, but how likely is it to happen? Really. And, as many of you may have noticed, this message contains the

“PLEASE send this letter to as many people as you can” line that is so often found in fake e-mail messages.

So, what should you do when you receive a seemingly reasonable e-mail forward that urges you to forward it to as many people as possible? Don’t do it. Well, don’t

do it without checking out the veracity of the message. There are plenty of Web sites offering details on Internet hoaxes and rumors. Here are a few:

– www.urbanlegends.about.com

– www.symantec.com

– www.cert.org

– www.cdc.gov

– www.urbanlegends.com

Another possibility, think about it. Does the message really make any sense? We’re all duped from time to time, but don’t fall victim to ridiculous claims or spend time

worrying about what you read in a forwarded e-mail.

And people, I beg you, don’t send ’em to me.

Jim Laird is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is jlaird@msbusiness.com.


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