"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." - Mark Twain
The Internet is a fantastic resource for researching and transmitting information. Unfortunately the quality of its information is often no better than neighborhood over-the-fence rumor; you can't easily tell if it's true or false. Worse, this new electronic form of backyard gossip can instantly get to the other side of the planet, long before the Truth has even thrown back its bedcovers, let alone gotten its shoes on.
A good example of this effect happened again a few days ago. Another email came to me with VERY IMPORTANT information that I needed to know. This time it was a warning about a mysterious rodent-transmitted disease that caused a death in Hawaii. It didn't sound right and I wanted to check it out. So who was I gonna call? Or better, what URL would tell me the truth about the message?
It's a site that catalogues various email rumors and gives a rating on their veracity. It's named after another Twain quote, "Truth is stranger than fiction," and it's a wonderful tool for cutting through the unsubstantiated sensationalism constantly circulating on the Net.
Truth Or Fiction is the creation of Rich Buhler. He's a former broadcaster who started the site in 1998, but has actually been researching what he calls "urban legends" for over 30 years, even featuring them at one time on his daily talk show. Since starting Truth Or Fiction, the site has grown to have a permanent staff and now houses thousands of e-rumours, reporting on subjects from celebrity quotes to urban legends to virus warnings.
Interestingly Buhler is also a committed Christian, but he is more than willing to have his site investigate e-rumors with a Christian twist too, such as the one that airlines have a non-Christian pilot fly with each Christian one in case of the Rapture. (It's false.) Exactly the kind of guy we love to talk to! Here then is our conversation on how the site delivers Rich's "hoodwink insurance," his favorite e-rumors, the responsibility that comes with sending email and the larger issues of Truth and Faith.
Cosmik: I'm curious about how Truth Or Fiction got started.
Buhler: When I was with KFWB, which was my first real news job, one of the things I was interested in was when we had rumors and hoaxes and urban legends that would start affecting our listenership, and I started developing a reputation as the guy who was in to those. Through the years I have just never lost the interest; I've researched urban legends all along. When I hosted a daily talk show for fifteen years... whenever one came up, we delighted in doing research on them.
About three years ago I began to realize what another dimension that [urban legends were] were going to be on the Internet, because of the interconnectivity and the instantaneous nature of it. There's a lot of really good urban legend sites, but I wanted to set up something that was a little more friendly to the average user of the Internet, that was not for the urban legend hobbyist. So I set up Truth Or Fiction partly because I've always been interested in that, partly because I felt that niche was needed and partly because I was going through a season where I was interested in playing with websites and I wanted to learn about that. So that's how it got started; it's just grown exponentially since then.
Cosmik: And your day job is still in broadcasting?
Buhler: I have a small production company in Orange [County]. We do primarily radio spots; we do infomercials a bit of television and video, but primarily radio, also I am a fairly widely traveled speaker and author, mostly in the Christian Community.
Cosmik: How does Truth Or Fiction do its work? After all your website is a resource in its own right, where you do go to check the facts behind a rumor?
Buhler: I would say about 60 or 70% of what we end up posting is found through Internet search. A lot of people are mystified by how to find things on the Internet, but with a good knowledge of a handful of search tools, especially things like Google, you can really do quite a bit. A percentage of the stories that pop up are ones that have been around for awhile, a percentage may be about a company or product and the company is annoyed with it enough that they have posted something on their website or it's easy to get ahold of them. A percentage of them we'll never know because there's just no source for them, and then some of them we really have to roll up our shirt sleeves and do some extensive digging into. The majority of them are pretty well researched on the Internet in itself.
Cosmik: How much data do you need to decide whether something's true or not?
Buhler: We use information that's as close to first hand as we can get and preferably multiple sources of first hand information... If it's in a newsgroup or something, that's not a primary source. We try to get as close to first hand sources as we can. [For example] an authentic company website, and there will be an authentic company press release there that may be a part of what we'll look into. Just something being mentioned on the site, that doesn't do it.
Actually the Internet is more of a tip source than a primary source. For instance a lot of the things that are on the Internet are maybe clever sayings or inspirational stories or something and they may have an incorrect source in the e-rumor. They may say that some famous person said it but that person really didn't. We can do a search for the wording of that and get the collection of sources that people think it's from and by weeding through those and contacting the people themselves, then we can narrow down where it came from. Unless it's a primary source, a verified company website or a law enforcement site or a government site, it's mostly a tip source that gives us the people that we can easily call or email to get the information.
Cosmik: This kind of work must be very labor intensive, how big is the staff there?
Buhler: We have one full time person that works with me and I have a group of about 5 or 6 people who are either paid or semi-paid or volunteer.
Cosmik: College interns or something?
Buhler: Yeah, a couple of college students. One of them is a housewife who just simply loves all this stuff; we couldn't pay her enough. I put in a great deal of time myself on it but I don't have a large staff. In fact there's a TV station from Florida that came to town a few months ago and wanted to get a video of all the researchers sitting at their computer terminals. I held up my laptop and said "Well, here's the website."
Cosmik: How does the site support itself?
Buhler: It is holding its own; the way it's holding its own is through subscriptions. We offer an e-newsletter that comes out about once a week, that keeps people informed of new e-rumors, hoaxes, virus warnings. That's proven to be more popular than I thought it would be. I smilingly refer to it as "Hoodwink Insurance." The thing about e-rumors is that anybody with email has been affected by them. When people get to the point where they are so fed up with being hoodwinked, they are hungry to have what I can offer to them in terms of a newsletter. So I sell that for a modest price, and people have signed up by the thousands. Actually it's been a very good source of income and I am no longer subsidizing the site.
We've got other things we're doing as well. I'm working on a book and some merchandise. Also I'm doing what's called the Truth Or Fiction Report on KFWB. We've been doing it for about three months or so. That's kind of been the test bed for it. It's ready to roll out and we're offering that to other radio stations.
Cosmik: So this is a series of little three-minute vignettes?
Buhler: It's actually a minute and I don't think it's going to be tough to bicycle around. The whole subject is very interesting; most media like it and so we're going to start spreading that around. Our strategy is to keep getting media which will generate new visitors and out of the visitors we will get new subscribers.
Cosmik: Here's the standard question that I'm sure you must get from every interviewer: what's the wildest rumor you've investigated that turned out to be true?
Buhler: I don't know if this is the most outlandish one but it's the one that I was the most surprised that it turned out to be true. The first day of flights after 9-11, which I think was a Saturday, there was a story that began circulating about an airline pilot who, after he got everybody on board and closed the door, essentially said, "Alright if anyone tries to do something funny on this airplane, you all have my permission to do any blessed thing you want to try to end it." He really just said to the passengers to do whatever you can, throw trays, throw bags, throw cameras. What he was doing was number one he was expressing the frustration and helplessness [but also] he was serving notice to any hijackers that might be on board that they were just not going to get away with it and people were willing to die to make them not get away with it.
It was written in such a sensational way and was such an unlikely thing that an airline pilot would be allowed to say, that I thought it was just a cavalier story, but it turned out to be true... We interviewed two of the passengers from the flight. The flight was reported on in a couple of sources, one was an Associated Press writer who was one of the passengers and the other was the Washington Post or the Washington Times, and then we confirmed it with United. United would not talk about it publicly even though everyone was privately applauding it.
Cosmik: So you were able to find out the name of the pilot?
Buhler: I do know the name of the pilot but I have not published it because I got it from underground sources at United Airlines.
Cosmik: That's an amazing story and good to hear it's true. Recently I used the site was because I had gotten an email that said back in the 80's Ollie North had bought his security system to protect his family from Osama Bin Laden and that he had testified to that effect in the Iran-Contra hearings. Alarm bells when off in my head immediately and I went to your site to check it out. Your writeup said the terrorist North mentioned was Abu Nidal, which fit what I remembered.
Buhler: It's very possible that one was accidental, that someone simply remembered [mistakenly]. Of course the security system was a very big part of the hearings because it was one of the three charges against him. He had received this free security system outside of military regulations... I'm guessing that somebody simply reflected on that and said, "Wow, he was talking about Osama Bin Laden!"
Cosmik: Actually the version that I got was very critical of Al Gore, blaming him for the prosecution of North. I didn't find it in your write-up, but I don't think Gore was even on that committee.
Buhler: Al Gore was not a part of the Iran-Contra Committee, that was a total fabrication.
Cosmik: Then that e-rumor was really character assassination.
Buhler: Right... One of the good things about the explosion of e-rumors on the internet is that it has caused an enormous number of people to be faced with how much of what's passed along to them is not true. It's jarred a lot of people. Ordinarily these things are spread word-of-mouth and maybe we might read or hear something that contradicts it, but for the most part in shared interest groups things will get passed around for a long time and believed to be true. But for a lot of people the fact that they can not only send something instantaneously, but they very often get a response instantaneously from somebody else saying, "Thanks for the email, but that's a hoax," it jars them. They sent it because they really thought it was true.
One of the things that I'm encouraging individuals to do is to pause and think about this and to develop personal rules of evidence. I don't want create a bunch of cynical people, but to realize that a lot of what's passed around just simply is not accurate. And not just on the internet, but for what gets passed around about people at work, and what gets passed around about people in the family, and all the rumors and all the self-serving stories that are damaging to other people.
I suggest for example that we ought to try, and none of us is going to be perfect at this, but just to love the Truth. Just to love the satisfaction that we nudged at least as close to it as we possibly can. And maybe that we'll come up with some personal standards that, "You know what, if it doesn't seem to have a good first hand source, why should I even pass it on to anybody else?" That's really scriptural! The scriptural standard is to let every fact be established by the testimony of two witnesses, that is, when there are facts that are going to determine somebody's guilt or innocence. So really the bottom line is to hopefully participate in helping encourage people to realize this, make some personal choices, and not to damage people with information that may not be true.
The other thing that I tell people is that when they click that mouse to send an email, they have become a publisher. They have published on the largest publishing entity that has ever existed. And they say, "Yeah, but I've only got 15 people on my address book." There are numerous examples of people who sent something to 15 other people and became what I call an "unintentional celebrity" on the internet. Because it just had all the ingredients of an e-rumor and it got passed around like crazy. The biggest e-rumor of the last twelve months was the one of the Tourist Guy.
Cosmik: Oh, yeah! That fake picture of the guy on top the World Trade Center with an airliner about to crash into it.
Buhler: That was an example of this. The fellow who made the picture is the fellow in the picture and he just did it as a joke! He sent it to a handful of his friends and it just took off. And the bigger it became the worse he felt, because it really was a very disrespectful thing to the lives of the people who were caught in that, making light, and he felt terrible about that and would've never published it that far and wide. In fact, the only reason we ever found out who he was, he's a student from Romania, was because his friends finally outted him. They kept saying, "Look this has become a big phenomenon, you ought to take credit for it," and he said "No, no, I don't want that." Then some guy who looked like him from South America got signed by Volkswagen to do a television commercial, (laughs) and that's when his friends said, "Alright enough is enough!" and they published his name on a Romanian website and it went out from there. But he didn't intend that.
The second most widely circulated rumor of the last twelve months was the Halloween Terrorism rumor at the malls -- that there was going to be terrorist activity at shopping malls on Halloween. That one, we don't know here it got started, but there was this one girl here in Southern California who got it, just like everybody else it was forwarded to her, and she went "Wow! That's important," and she forwarded it to her friends and for some reason that's the one that got the most widely circulated. It was her forward because it had her email signature at the bottom, which sort of made it look like she was the one who knew the truth of it. It caused her no end of trouble because she had her employer's phone number on it, she had the place where she worked, she had her email address. It shut down their mail server, it distracted her employer [because] for weeks he was getting phone calls and media response.
It's a powerful thing. In fact, that Halloween Mall rumor devastated some of shopping malls. The International Council of Shopping Centers which is a 30,000 member group, I'd never heard of them before, had me come speak at their annual security conference a couple of weeks ago in Baltimore, Maryland, because they were freaked out by the rumor. Tom Ridge of Homeland Security was the keynote speaker in the morning and I was the afternoon keynote speaker. That's how powerful an e-rumor can be.
Cosmik: I had a vegetarian friend who sent me an e-rumor that claimed a certain fast food restaurant is using headless chickens to make their chicken nuggets with. It actually claimed they are growing chicken body parts by some high-tech method that uses wries and tubes to replace regular chickens! I kind of lost him as a friend because I sent him a reply where I pointed out that the rumor didn't make any economic sense. The chicken is probably the cheapest meat animal of all to raise. Why would they go to all the trouble to develop all this supposed technology to raise fake chickens? He got very upset at me because what he was really doing was promoting vegetarianism.
Buhler: There's one of the ingredients of an e-rumor. An e-rumor always has what I call the Wow Factor. "Wow, this is interesting," "Wow, this is funny," "Wow, this is important," "Wow, this is just what I thought Bill and Hillary would do," or whatever the Wow is that I want. So even though that rumor is really ludicrous, you can see where somebody who has the Wow Factor as a vegetarian would want it to be true and would use it as something to spread to their non-vegetarian friends, "Hey lookee here!" That's one of the key ingredients of an e-rumor.
Cosmik: I can see that's what you concentrate on. What about other kinds of pop controversies do you investigate? You don't indulge in UFO stories or anything do you?
Buhler: No, not unless it becomes an e-rumor. TruthOrFiction.com is specifically [for e-rumors]. In fact really we're sort of a Top 10 of e-rumors, we don't even go after all of the e-rumors. We get hundreds of emails each day and we just take the ones that seem to be getting the greatest circulation because that's what will be of greatest interest. Those are the ones that we concentrate on.
Cosmik: You don't go after stories of faith healing either.
Buhler: No. If there was a big e-rumor on the topic of faith healing then we would look into it.
I'm not saying that if we don't get a larger staff or something that we might not do that, but my interest is to be a site that when someone gets an e-rumor or some information [and wonders] whether it's true or not, that they'll be able to go to our site and hopefully we will have it.
Cosmik: There are certainly plenty of things that need objective investigation, that the average citizen has trouble getting the facts on. For example, the many allegations of abuse by Catholic priests. I am certain that in several cases if not dozens or more there's been some shenanigans going on, but the quality of the facts is very poor. It's all he said, she said evidence, very much like the whole Bill-and-Monica situation. How do you know something is true when nobody else was there?
Buhler: Well that's the problem with sexual abuse. Unless somebody got it on videotape, it really is a very murky realm. On the one extreme, it happens and it's damaged a lot of people and there are a lot of jerks out there, on the other hand there have been a lot of people who have been falsely accused.
Cosmik: Right. Then there's the whole subject of recovered memory where the psychologists can hypnotize people and find some sort of hidden memory. Even the Scientologists with their regressions and finding whole past lives with that, excuse me, silly e-meter. I have to say, "Get real!"
Buhler: I think that's really murky territory. Unfortunately the regression therapy and the recovering memory strategy is based on the real phenomenon [where] a large number of victims of abuse do repress it. But they usually don't get in touch with memories through extensive therapy; they usually get in touch with them spontaneously. They get to a later season of life, have an experience of life that just causes the whole thing to pop back up from the deep. It's not that they've ever forgotten; it's just that they've elected not to think about it for a long time. That's a lot different than trying to construct memories that people don't have.
Cosmik: I think that the power of suggestion in situations like that is far too strong that people can be guided to making something up.
Buhler: It's really true because the mind is the same instrument that writes novels! (Laughs) You get somebody in the right mood, they can construct a pretty elaborate novel and really believe that it's true. I think that regression therapy is valuable from a therapeutic standpoint and helps the person get in touch with the nature of what they may have gone through, but I think to use it as something to accuse people is very unreliable. [That was like the] evidence in the whole satanic ritual abuse craze. That sort of became a fad, where there were lots and lots of people accused of satanic ritual abuse and it just didn't exist.
[Pictured: Natural History Museum in Cincinatti, OH]
Cosmik: That's very interesting. I noticed in your bio that you are very active in the Christian community. I find that fascinating because all too often these days Christians are labeled as very credulous and mistrustful of objective, scientific evidence. I was raised Christian and went to Sunday School, but my family was pretty open-minded about things where religion touched science. Often right after church we used to go the Natural History Museum and I'd get my models of dinosaurs. As a result I was always comfortable with the notion of the Earth being an old place but God was still responsible for it somehow. I knew the Genesis story, but I was scientific-minded at the same time. Do you have a conflict of that sort as a Christian?
Buhler: No, because if I believe in God and if I believe God is responsible for all this, then Truth is getting nearer to Him. Science will go through stages of theory, but I think to love whatever the newest truth is, as best we can determine it, is a healthy thing. It's not going to be any threat to the truth of what really happened. I think the biggest conflicts have been when people [have] vicious fights over what they don't know. "Here's my understanding of what we don't know and I don't like your understanding of what we don't know. So let's have conflict over what we don't know!" (Laughs) I think that's just a human trait that says, "I want to camp out with my view," and it's unfortunate because half of it is stuff that we just don't know. But no, I don't have a conflict between faith and fact or faith and science at all.
Cosmik: That's very refreshing. Quite frankly I consider myself a very spiritual person, but I'm not much of a churchgoer and it's been difficult for me to impart a sense of spirituality to my kids. I try to train them to be loving people and know Jesus, but my understanding is really a pretty complicated kind of view. A lot of the churchgoing people that I know, bless their hearts they are all very good people, but their preachers force them into a literal interpretation of the Bible that I just can't live with. That's the main reason that I can't go to church anymore.
Buhler: I'm a literalist, but I think the problem is that most of the people ... are camping out with things that the Bible doesn't even really say. One of the things that Jesus got after the Pharisees and castigated them for was teaching the precepts of Man as if they were the commandments of God. I think that's where there's a lot of difficulty with religion. God really gave us some fairly simple principles. When he had the chance all he gave us was ten commandments. (Chuckles) That's certainly not the whole scope of what he's conveyed to us but I think that fundamentally what God has considered important and what Jesus taught was important were very basic principles and what most religious groups have done is added to that--their sensitivities over how you dress or how you talk or whether you drink or don't drink and so forth, that the Bible doesn't really support.
One of the things I enjoy is traveling and visiting different groups of Christians around the world and it's fascinating, even in the former Soviet Union during the time of the Iron Curtain, that here were these precious, committed, courageous Christians who were willing to risk their lives for their faith. That's how precious it was to them, but they had these [conflicts] with one another over something like the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Some of them thought there ought to be foot washing, some of them didn't and they'd have these horrendous battles. You know they were willing to die with one another, linking arms in prison, over the fact of Christ.
I think that's just a human thing. Every group tends to think that some of the other issues that are important to them ought to be dividing issues. I think that's what's turned a lot of people off.
Cosmik: I can't agree with you more. I've read a lot, the Bible, the Old Testament and I recently read a book on the life of St. Paul that advanced that the reason Christianity split off from it's Judaic roots is that St. Paul said you didn't have to be circumcised anymore.
Cosmik: Stuff like that I find fascinating. Again people camping out with their version of the truth, as you say, it's very hard to talk to them about some kinds of things.
Buhler: And it's so unnecessary. You know, the fundamentals, whether you should murder or not, and certain issues of fundamental morality and so forth are clear because they are not only spelled out in the Scripture, but they are repeated over and over again. But most of the conflict that occurs in groups is not over those fundamentals. It's over other stuff.
That's the conflict we have with our parents, you know. (Chuckles) Mom and Dad think it's evil to do something that in the scope of history probably is not, but somehow that is what has resulted from their culture... I think the way to measure it is the spirit in which someone does something. In my mom's day, for anyone to wear anything other than a fully covered bathing suit, could only have been done in a spirit of trying to shock, a spirit of ultra sensuality. But my kids wear skimpy two-piece bathing suits to church bathing parties and they are not doing it in a spirit of being a jezebel. They are doing it in the same spirit that my mom did with virtually everything covered. In fact in her day polite Christian kids even though they were fully covered didn't go swimming together.
To mistake the spirit in which it is done which is the same, with that which is seen warned from a different time, different era, different culture I think is very tragic. That's really what a lot of conflict is all about. And it's really powerful especially if someone's gone through a real time of spiritual renewal in their life or maybe an initial time of spiritual explosion. It's sort of like the love songs we all loved in high school. The first time you fell in love and really had somebody who was the object of your love. There is nothing quite like those love songs from that era. That's the language of our romance.
Cosmik: As a deejay I'm right with you on that.
Buhler: Hearing a heavy metal band do a romance song doesn't do it for me, but to my kids that's their romance.
Cosmik: That's their idiom!
Buhler: It's too bad that people think there's something inherently deficient about the new generation's language of romance, but I think that's what a lot of conflict in faith has been all about. A lot of it is just pride, a lot of it is just people. Certainly we all want to be right, but [some] want to be more right than somebody else, those becoming issues to be more right about. It's very sad to me, I circulate in a broad number of different expressions of faith and they've all got it! I don't think there's a religious group around that doesn't have that human problem.