Tricks, Not Treats — How Rumors Can Ruin the Democratic Process

As I dished out candy to ghosts, goblins and entirely too many Sarah Palins on Friday, I had a spooky thought just in time for Halloween: It scares me to think about the impact that silly rumors and gossip have had on the democratic process this year.

Who would have thought that on Election Day, a significant portion of the voting public would be still concerned that a candidate is a Muslim extremist or a foreign-born socialist? Why do these extreme, outlandish examples of rumors seem so prevalent, and what can we do to stop them from having an impact on the election?

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll notice that I spend most of my time as a customer service representative — I deal with scams, scandals and lies, and I’m pretty good at figuring out which rumors are true and which ones aren’t.

Here’s a trick of the trade: If you read an e-mail or a post that says “THIS IS NOT A SCAM,” chances are it is one. If a fact or a deal seems unlikely or too extreme to be true, it usually is. If you are criticized by the scammer for wanting to clarify facts, they’re probably false.

It’s still easy to get caught up in rumors or extreme thinking — it’s human behavior. That’s why there are so many rumors out there. They are interesting; rumors are tidbits of information that could make a large impact on our lives, even if the facts are questionable.

These lies are also the easiest way to threaten the democratic process — particularly lies that make Americans concerned for their safety. Democracy is based on the philosophy that all citizens have equal rights, equal access to political issues, and an equal desire to educate themselves about candidates’ platforms before they make their voting decisions. Every vote is counted equally because, in an ideal world, everyone is able to make an informed decision. If someone hears an unlikely rumor that, say, John McCain belongs to an underground terrorist organization, and accepts it as fact, it upsets the balance of information — that person’s vote reflects what he or she has heard, not what he or she actually knows. The voter is cheated out of the patriotic experience. Voting should be an opportunity for citizens to feel involved in their country and study their candidates’ records, not a time where they feel they must dash to the polls to save themselves from a terrorist.

There is an excess of information on the Internet. Rumors have a greater impact online because they reach more people without getting challenged. However, the best defense against gossip and rumors is found with the same search engine — the Internet is also the best way to debunk rumors. FactCheck.org is a nonpartisan site that uses logic and real evidence to debunk rumors — there are many more, but this is the most popular.

If Americans refuse to give any merit to rumors (or refuse to pass along the rumor) without complete, unbiased evidence, gossip will lose its power. If we give every American the resources to debunk rumors and encourage them to make informed decisions on Election Day, rumors will be less invasive, and pervasive, next election season.

This is also why Net neutrality is important; everyone should have reasonable access to information that affects their standard of living, and the Internet is the best way to disseminate information. It’s unreasonable to assume that everyone understands political issues or policies, but we must give everyone access to the Internet to ensure it is available to them. People must have the right to come to their own educated decision, and that right to information is being threatened.

We cannot afford another deceptive Halloween — there’s too much on the line. Let’s encourage each other to look past the political costumes and the unlikely scandals and judge the candidates on their platforms, not the spam from our inbox.


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