Naivete, Cynicism, and Wisdom
I posted over at Progressive Revival a short report about another case of viral misinformation about Barack Obama. I recounted how over the last few weeks, Mara Vanderslice, Amy Sullivan, and others have “drawn needed attention to some more and less subliminal messages coming from the McCain campaign.” These McCain approved TV ads have linked Senator Obama to the – gulp – Anti-Christ, using imagery and language Evangelical Christians would resonate with.
A similar message has been virally worming its way through the internet, this one evoking – gulp again - Adolf Hitler. The viral message ended with the predictable “If you agree this is important, pass it on. The mainstream media will not do it for you!” It claimed to have been written by "Bill Brown, a highly respected retired member of the Billy Graham team." Thousands believed the claim and passed on the email – after all, it was on the internet!
Some internet-savvy noses detected a hoax. They surmised that Bill Brown was a fictitious name, but my friend Steve Knight new better. He, also a former employee of the Billy Graham team, knew that Bill Brown was a real person who had in fact worked for the Graham organization. What he didn’t know was whether Brown had actually written the letter.
So – in a wise move of avoiding both naïve credulity and presumptive cynicism - Steve made the wise move of checking out the story with Brown himself.
I’m including his email in its entirety, because I think it’s a model of good communication.
Steve sent the following email to Mr. Brown on August 7:
Dear Mr. Brown,
My name is Steve Knight, and I'm a former "Billy Graham Team" member also (although not as distinguished as you, certainly) -- I served for six years in the Internet ministry of BGEA (three years in Minneapolis and three years in Charlotte, NC). I learned about your fight with cancer from Dan Wooding's email updates (see below). I want you to know that I am praying for your health, and praising God for the strength that he's given you.
I am writing out of concern for an email message that has been attributed to you ("Bill Brown, a highly respected retired member of the Billy Graham team") and that has been forwarded to literally thousands of people in the last few weeks and has also been posted on nearly 10,000 Web pages according to a recent Google search:
This message, credited to you, is entitled "The Obama Tidal Wave" and outlines "Just Some of What Defines Barack Obama." You can view the message posted here on this pro-McCain website:
I'll tell you upfront that I am an evangelical Christian, and I am also a supporter of Senator Obama. I'm not interested in trying to debate with you the merits of Sen. Obama vs. Sen. McCain. I simply have two concerns that I'm hoping you might be able to address in a reply to me:
1) Did you write this email, which has been attributed to you? Will you take credit and responsibility for this email? Or, as some are suggesting, is this yet another Internet hoax seeking to falsely cast Senator Obama in a negative light among evangelicals and other conservative voters? At least one Obama supporter is claiming that "not only was the author not a real person, but the email itself is a thinly disguised smear campaign" (http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/darrenmeahl/gGxsV2). And, sir, if it is a hoax, will you reject and denounce it to protect your good name and Senator Obama's reputation also? Or what is your response to the message of this email?
2) If you did write the email, I must first congratulate you for its success in spreading "virally" around the Web, from inbox to inbox, perhaps beyond what you even hoped or expected. I don't want to respond point-by-point (as some have already done online), but rather to raise one matter of concern about the reference to Hitler in the message, "The power of speech from a charismatic person truly can be a powerful thing. ... the charisma of Adolph Hitler inspired millions and the results were catastrophic." Considering that Barack Obama is the first African-American ever to be nominated for the highest office in our nation, it seems to me to be a highly inappropriate and insensitive statement to in any way compare Senator Obama to Adolph Hitler -- not to mention the racial overtones of doing so.
Charisma, as the message also states, is a characteristic that has helped Billy Graham in his ministry, and I would argue was a significant factor in the election of each of our last several presidents. The fact that Senator Obama is more charismatic than Senator McCain does not justify the inflammatory and fear-producing comparison to Hitler. I believe it's this sort of rhetoric that is resulting in things like the assassination threat on Senator Obama's life that was in the news today. As Christians, I would hope we could find some agreement that we have no need to fear and can trust God with the future regardless of who might be the next Commander-in-Chief "for the LORD is king and rules over the nations" (Psalm 22:28).
Thank you for taking the time to read this email and responding as you are able -- to either confirm or dispel the rumors linking your name to this email message.
Grace and peace,
former BGEA Internet Manager (www.billygraham.org)
A few days later, Steve received this reply:
From: William Brown
Sent: Monday, August 11, 2008 12:31 AM
To: Steve Knight
Subject: Re: A message from Bill Brown Sr
Steve...I neither wrote the letter or the reference of Billy Graham. Some one else did that, I don't know who...and the[n] added a reference to Billy Graham. So, please ignore it. Thanks BB
A reminder to us all … don’t believe everything you hear, even if it's on "the internets."