Alert! Real hoaxes afoot!

I know that President Bush is depending on average Americans like me to be on homeland security patrol every day, keeping our eyes and ears open for signs of potential intrigue from the Evil Ones.

Unfortunately, some recent events indicate that many of my fellow sentries may be easily duped by rumors or gossip.

Not long ago, I received an e-mail that is well known around the country as the NPR Funding Hoax. It starts off with this sentence: "On NPR's Morning Edition last week, Nina Tottenberg [sic] said that if the Supreme Court supports Congress, it is in effect the end of the National Public Radio (NPR), NEA and the Public Broadcasting System."

It goes on to ask the recipient to add his or her name to the list opposing the destruction of NPR, and send it on like a chain letter. Eventually the giant electronic petition will be "forwarded to the President and Vice President." And I'm pretty sure they will send it on to the tooth fairy and Paul Bunyon.

That last line was a joke, but I can't assume every reader will pick up the humorous undertone, so let me repeat: The NPR message is bogus. Poor Nina Totenberg will probably spend the rest of her life trying to convince bank tellers, autograph seekers, and the Social Security administration that her last name is really spelled with two t's, not three.

The phony message has been circulating through cyberspace for years. It's been debunked repeatedly. An explanation is posted on the NPR website. If any urban legend deserves to be crushed under the weight of overwhelming truth, this one is a prime candidate. Yet it lives on, spread by citizens who should know better, including the friend who sent it to me.

This is a problem that every society wrestles with. A certain percentage of the population is predisposed to think the worst and accept explanations that are illogical and even outrageous.

France is experiencing a vivid example of the phenomenon right now, with thousands of readers snapping up copies of "L' Effroyable Imposture" ("The Frightening Fraud"), a book that claims the 9/11 explosion at the Pentagon was caused by a missile or bomb deployed by US government secret agents.

Unfortunately, I just heard about another home-grown rumor that may top "The Frightening Fraud." According to my neighbor, one of her friends now believes that contrails left by high-flying jet planes are evidence of secret chemical testing on the American populace. No word on what sort of toxins "they" are using on us, but my source claims this story is now getting wide circulation here at street level.

All of which makes me wonder how easy it will be for the bad guys to spread their own nefarious yarns if and when they decide to embark on a low-profile disinformation campaign. It would be nice to think that Americans in the 21st century are too savvy and intelligent to get collectively hookwinked by hoaxes, pranks, or propaganda. Don't you believe it.

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