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Don’t Forward Libelous E-Mail

Like everyone else, I daily receive forwarded e-mail messages from friends and acquaintances. Whenever it says at the bottom, “Pass this along to 10 of your friends and keep this message alive,” I immediately determine I will not pass it along, no matter what the threat may be in ignoring the warning.

In the midst of an election year, forwarded political messages have become problematic. There has been a marked increase in forwarded messages that have that high-mileage, heavily passed-along look, that are in fact campaign smears against one or the other presidential candidate.

Admittedly, some of these messages are meant to be humorous. They are meant as jokes, even though there’s an unmistakable personal barb in them.

Political satire has long been a vital part of the American political system. Late-night comedians thrive on the economy of the misspoken word or social gaffe and we citizens love to take our politicians down a notch or two whenever possible.

This week’s The New Yorker magazine cover illustrates how even political satire can be deadly. Are the characterizations by cartoonist Barry Blitt true? It doesn’t seem to matter, as he has lampooned a common perception fueled by these anonymous e-mail forwards.

These messages are sinister, because they allege certain secret facts about a candidate that have inexplicably gone unnoticed by untold thousands of professional political reporters who are gunning for the candidates in order to scoop these same kind of hidden secrets before any other reporter can get hold of them.

Professional reporters have well-established ethical codes that tether them to the responsibilities they have as reporters. In those codes, they must verify the facts and identify themselves as the authors of their own reports.

But with e-mail, these so-called facts are presented as if no one else has the courage to unmask them or as if there is a conspiracy to keep these facts from the public who deserve to know the truth. With e-mail, we somehow suspend the need for ethics and allow messages with no identified author to have the same merit as those messages we receive from actual reporters.

So what do we do with these anonymous messages passed along virus-like from one person to another?

When one uses one of the several urban-legend search engines, more often than not the content of these mysterious e-mail messages are discovered to be fabrications.

They are vicious, destructive lies with racial or anti-religious biases. They question a candidate’s motives and challenge their patriotism. Why would anyone wish to tell blatant lies about these candidates? What motivations do they have that these messages would originate, then be given an unending life on the Internet passed along by both the malicious and the naïvely zealous?

When I discover the forwarded message is not true and is instead a thinly veiled personal attack on the candidate, my anger expectedly wells up at the one who passed it along as fact. Since there’s no one else to be held accountable, I point my anger at the only name I recognize. That is usually someone I know personally: ironically usually a fellow church member or friend. I wonder, why they would participate in this hateful way of communicating.

In this year’s presidential election, there are hateful religious and racial overtones claimed falsely about Sen. Barack Obama. Sen. McCain gets off lightly but still must deal with the issues of ageism, although there is a marked difference in the way the two candidates are unfairly vilified.

Four years ago, a new term, “swift-boating,” came to mean an unfair attack on one’s distinguished military service as if to reduce that service to a sham that had been contrived for purely political gain, even though the truth of that person’s service had been noble and self-sacrificing. It was the epitome of turning truth into a lie. Nevertheless, the damage was done and no one suffered much for passing along the original lies unless you consider John Kerry’s character as having been sacrificed on the altar of dirty politics. To that end, I suppose we all suffered at the sacrifice of our need for personal and public integrity.

The Bible has plenty to say about the sins of gossip and lying and condemns both forthrightly.

Our legal system also condemns both slander and libel as character assassination. It’s slander when you say it and libel when you print it.

So what happens when you forward libelous e-mails where the author of such lies hides behind the cloak of anonymity? Is there no guilt for that as well?

Keith D. Herron is senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.