Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Forward Halt

A popular television commercial for a well-known insurance company shows a young woman having a conversation about the Internet while waiting for her date to arrive. She says they can’t put things on the Internet if they are not true. She also says her date is a French model she met on the Internet. As the scruffy-looking male approaches with a very American-sounding “bonjour” greeting, it becomes clearly evident he is no French model.

By now, Internet-savvy people know that most anything imaginable can appear in cyberspace. One must use extreme caution when discerning information from unknown sources. Unsolicited information is even more suspect. What many people apparently do not realize is that forwarded emails that would appear to support causes we strongly believe in, may not in fact be as they appear.

Over the years, I have developed a sense of cyber-smell, a sixth sense that is activated whenever a forwarded email gives off an odor of suspicion. Undated messages reporting recent events are always questionable since forwarded emails by their very nature never die. Especially suspicious are those who blame the biased news media as the reason you never heard of this event, and then try to shame you into forwarding it to everyone in your address book.

Such was the case last week when a local parishioner forwarded an “Unbelievable and shocking!” statement by “Father Juan Carlos Martos cmf Secretariat of PV Clarettiani Missionaries” showing a photo of hundreds of charred bodies lying in rows before bystanders in front of a dilapidated building. The caption said, “This is a brutal example of how far the struggle between muslims and catholics in Nigeria has reached.”

Emails to the parish webpage pass through me, and this particular parishioner floods our inbox almost daily with various forwarded messages she deems of interest. I confess that I usually delete anything with “Fwd” in the subject line, but this message also included a plea to our pastor to put this in the bulletin and preach on it. Knowing that she also sends them directly to our pastor, I thought it prudent to check the claims for accuracy since my sixth olfactory sensor went off when I read it.

The posting contained no date or particulars on the incident pictured, although our parishioner claimed it occurred near the end of January. The message goes on to criticize “Human Rights Organizations” for lack of action and the “(Spanish) Facebook Management for not allowing the poster to publish this graphic “as proof of the Holocaust that Christians have been suffering in Nigeria in the last ten years.” While Christians are being persecuted in predominately Muslim countries and media is selective about what they report, I could not believe a story of this magnitude would not make the American press. The end of the message urges everyone to “distribute this photo and its comments using all the media you have.”

I first checked Snopes.com, a well-known fact checker. Yes, I am aware of all the other forwarded messages claiming Snopes is biased. In any case, it is still a good place to start. I found nothing there. What I did find was this same story being circulated by numerous bloggers, most if not all Christian sources. Does that make the story true, or are they simply repeating their outrage at the same fictitious posting? None of these were mainstream news sources. Are they ignoring this tragic story or did it not even occur? Searching for the existence of Father Juan Carlos Marcos, nothing turned up apart from the numerous postings of his purported statement.

Digging a little deeper, I found numerous sites claiming this story is a hoax. The picture is real, but the photograph shows the aftermath of a tragic accident that occurred when a tanker truck overturned in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early July of 2010. The tanker exploded as villagers from Sangue were trying to take fuel from the ruptured tank. Over 300 were fatally burned in the fireball. So how do we know who is telling the truth here?

This story of Muslims burning Catholics really caught fire at the end of January 2013, but versions of it appear on the Internet much earlier. Furthermore, the same picture of burned bodies appears in 2010 with a story about the exploding tanker. Within a few minutes of Internet fact-checking, I was fairly certain this particular story of Muslims burning Catholics was fabricated.

I immediately replied to the parishioner with a link to a source pointing out the problem with the story. Fearful that our priest would tell the story from the pulpit, I also sent him a copy calling the story a hoax. The next day I received a reply from the parishioner saying she did not trust the hoax story and she accused me of believing anything, including msNBC. Ouch! I replied again with further evidence and she acknowledged the story could be problematic.

Imagine my surprise when our pastor told the story in his homily this past Sunday. He expressed outrage that 300 Catholics in Africa were locked in their church and set on fire, and the anti-Catholic media in this country refused to report the story. Have you ever wanted to jump out of your pew in the middle of a homily and say, “Father, that’s a lie!”

Why would anyone fabricate a story like this in the first place? One blogger ties the origin to an anti-Muslim activist who I will not name because verification of this is difficult. As Catholics, we need to be truthful in all things. Our credibility and integrity are at stake. We have enough legitimate claims of persecution without spreading lies. To vilify our oppressors and the press unfairly is counterproductive.

Calumny is a serious sin. Granted those forwarding this story may be well-intended, but they are allowing themselves to be used as conduits of deceit by someone spreading hatred. Do not be too quick to forward emails that may speak to your liking. Be absolutely certain they are factual before sending them on. If it sounds too bad to be true, it probably isn’t.