Whenever journalists speak of disseminating news in the online world, they’re usually referring to blogging, social networking, and other Web 2.0 technologies. What you don’t hear about very often are the millions of mass emails that are sent out on a daily basis — they’re sometimes referred to as “chain emails.” A person gets some kind of news item in his inbox and then forwards it to his entire address book. This allows a piece of information to be spread quickly to thousands of people without being formerly published online or in print.
Unfortunately, these mass emails provide an easy outlet for groups to widely promote propaganda and misinformation. Because there is no permalink or publication to trace it to, falsehoods can quickly be disseminated in such a way so that it’s almost impossible to trace the writing to its original source. And because the writing isn’t published anywhere — at least right away — it can float under the radar undetected by those knowledgeable or skeptical enough to cry foul while thousands of emails continue to be sent.
Eventually, readers start copy and pasting the emails into online message boards and blogs, but by then the misinformation has become so ubiquitous that it’s considered fact.
Philip Pullman, the author of The Golden Compass, which has been made into a major motion picture, has included anti-religious themes in his books. Naturally — as we saw with The Da Vinci Code — Christian groups have begun to form protests against it. Today, I received a mass-forwarded email from a Christian relative that quotes Pullman as saying this:
The Golden Compass, A movie you might want to avoid.
In the words of the author, “I want to kill God in the minds of Children…. I want them to decide against God and the Kingdom of Heaven.”
As you might have guessed, this is a quote that Pullman never actually said.
After hitting thousands of inboxes, this false quote eventually spilled over onto dozens of webpages. Notice that some of those sites are run by churches.
I meticulously went through every single direct reference to the quote, and never once does it cite a source. A few of these webpages claim that this quote came from a mysterious 2003 interview with the author, but we never actually find out where.
In fact, the only quote that Pullman actually said that comes close to this appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people – mainly from America’s Bible Belt – who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”
This, of course, is entirely different from the author saying “I want to kill God in the minds of Children.”
This email that was sent to me was CC’d to 20 other people. These chain messages typically fan out in a pyramid-like fashion. Because of this one email, thousands of people actually think that Pullman said those words. As for who actually falsely attributed them to him? We’ll never know.