For some time now I’ve preached about the evil side of the internet and how people can be taken in by ruses or outright hoaxes. Human nature leads us to more or less believe what we see in print. If the internet says it’s true, anyone can be fooled, especially those who lack the common sense which comes with life experience to recognize balderdash when they see it. And all too often these days, many people are just too busy to research a fantastic claim made on the internet in order to verify its validity.
Snake oil salesmen have been around in various forms for as long as has humanity. Remember the kindly old traveling magician portrayed in "The Wizard of Oz?" Well, I’m old enough to recall peddlers traveling from town to town in the 1950s, selling magic potions to ease arthritis or most anything else that ails you.
The print media has seen flagrantly ridiculous excuses for journalism sold on news stands or in grocery store checkout lanes which tout "Aliens Mind-Altering Rays Hypnotize American Voters; Obama Elected!" or some other ridiculous claim. Hey, wait a minute! Obama was elected! That explains it!
Radio has "shock jocks" who rant and rave, predicting doom and gloom should the candidates and policies of their opponents come to power. And, with the advent of cable and satellite telecasts, television now has reality shows and talk shows feeding off specific groups of citizens who seem to be unable to think at all for themselves.
Snake oil salesmen, all of them.
But the thing that sets the internet apart and makes it so dangerous is its insidious nature. Parents don’t know when, or if, their children are surfing the web. Parents, themselves, can be duped without even suspecting that they’ve been fooled.
Certainly I’m not above the teeming masses termed by French essayist Michel de Montaigne as "the herd." I’ve fallen for my share of practical jokes, both as a youngster and as an adult. But a practical joke does no real harm. The pernicious evil lurking within the internet in the form of credit card scams, identity theft, and outright propaganda designed to alter the way whole segments of society look at events and individuals who support opposing ideas is a dangerous thing, indeed. Because people can be hurt, badly, by these attacks.
One light-hearted example of an internet ruse transpired just this week. For more than a year an e-mail containing beautiful photographs has circled the world proclaiming that on Friday, August 27, 2010, Mars would be closer to Earth than at any time in history. Mars would appear in the night sky to be as large as the Moon.
Now, admittedly, I’m not the brightest crayon in the box. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that Mars will never appear to be the same size as the Moon. Unless Chicken Little was right, and the sky is falling...
Nevertheless, just to see if any of my neighbors fell for it, I took my binoculars out into Farmington Lane and enjoyed looking at craters on the Moon. And, sure enough, there was Mars, shining brilliantly. With the clarity and size of about a one-quarter carat diamond.
For the record, no Farmington Lane residents fell for the ruse. I sipped coffee and reveled in contentment that the evil internet empire had failed to invade my neighborhood through Mars.
However, earlier in the week a much more sinister e-mail did invade our neighborhood. An e-mail entitled "The Obama Phone" made the rounds, describing how the federal government subsidizes free cell phones and free provider services for indigent citizens; it ended with the admonition to remember this when the 2012 election arrives.
For me, that e-mail was the last straw. Infuriated, fed up with subsidized housing, subsidized mortgages, indigent health funds and free lunches, I filled this column with 800 of the best words I’ve ever written. I felt so good after venting that I almost submitted the column without first checking sources.
Am I ever glad my social studies discipline kicked in! The e-mail claims about "The Obama Phone" proved to be totally and completely, 100 percent, false.
Free cell phones and free monthly provider services do exist for the indigent. And they’re offered here in Georgia. But they are not subsidized by the Federal Government. They are offered by the cell phone providers themselves, paid for by fees charged to their regular customers. And the program is not President Obama’s baby; it began back in the Reagan years, when cell phones were big plastic boxes mounted on a vehicle’s transmission tunnel.
Pervasive? Insidious? You bet. The snake oil salesmen still travel around, but now wear the invisible clothing of the internet.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.