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10.09.08

This is a column about distinguishing fact and fiction, not about politics.  But in politics, the two are often confused.

According to the September 6 issue of Newsweek, one quarter of Americans believe fiction about the President, his religion, his political and social philosophy and terrorist sympathies.

The facts are well established.  One can read any newspaper and be reasonably well-informed about current affairs.  But suppose you wanted to verify the accuracy of something you heard a neighbor or relative say, or get the skinny on one of the comments made on a pro-/anti- Dem/Rep/Tea talk radio?  Where would you look?

FactCheck.org is one such place to look for the facts on politics, including claims made in political ads, and statements made during the Sunday talk shows.  FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  It was established in 2003 to sort "truth from spin in politics".  In 2008 and 2010, FactCheck won Webby awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for being the best Politics site (the Webbys have been called the "Oscars of the Internet").

This site produces articles on politicians at all levels of government, and answers questions from viewers.  The Cash Attack feature tracks groups funding political ads.  A companion site, factchecked.org, provides resources, including lesson plans, for classroom use in teaching students to think critically.

When you want to check out the facts behind one of those chain emails you're forever getting from a cousin or co-worker, the best place to go is Snopes.com.  This site investigates urban legends and rumors and reveals the fact and fiction, fraud and scams that abound in our world.  You can search a variety of topics, including business, computers (all those virus warnings), crimes, food, history, law, luck, medical, military, old wives' tales, politics, religion, science, toxins, and disasters, among still more.

Here you will learn that the claim that "the artificial sweetener aspartame has been proved responsible for an epidemic of cancers, brain tumors and multiple sclerosis" is FALSE.  You will discover that "reusing, freezing, or heating plastic water bottles will cause them to break down into carcinogenic compounds or release dioxins" is partly FALSE and partly TRUE, and can read the full story.

An email which circulated locally several months ago about a cancer update from Johns Hopkins University is FALSE.  So is the chain email that turns up frequently about the nursery rhyme "Ring around the Rosie" referring to the Black Plague.

Another good site that identifies Internet hoaxes is www.hoaxbusters.org.  This site provides The BIG LIST of chain email letters and warns that all of these should be deleted.  It says that "no big company is going to give you a gift certificate (giveaway hoaxes), spamming your friends and family will not provide medical care or financial relief for an ill or injured child (sympathy hoaxes), that perfume is not ether (urban legends), and there is no such thing as email tracking!"  There are so many Internet hoax letters about Barack Obama that hoaxbusters had to create a separate page for his entry.

Thomas Jefferson is often credited with having said that “information is the currency of democracy” (although Ralph Nader may have coined the phrase).  To insure the survival of a democracy, citizens should inform themselves about civic affairs with the best tools available. Just keep in mind that you cannot believe everything you hear, and verify the accuracy of your information.

If these sites do not answer your question, you can always ask a librarian.  Call us at 988-2541 or visit us at www.tcplweb.org.

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