Printed and emailed matter about the congressional health-care debate is circulating around Reno. And some of it is dangerous if swallowed.
One of them, faxed to the News & Review and other newsrooms around the state on July 28 by a group in Fernley, has proliferated on the internet. On Aug. 14, it appeared on more than 4,000 sites. At press time, it was over 6,000 with more being added each day. Innumerable other versions are being circulated as emails. It is usually headed “Actual itemized contents of the Health Care Reform Bill.”
The Fernley sheet, presumably taken originally from an internet source, contains dense text providing page by page information on one of the Democratic health-care measures, frequently using emotionally loaded terms. The citation of specific page numbers gives a sense of authenticity to the sheet’s contents. There are more than 40 such by-page citations.
Sample lines from the sheet:
“Page 22: Mandate audits of all employers that self-insure! …
“Page 29: Admission: your health care will be rationed! …
“Page 50: All non-US citizens, illegal or not, will be provided with free healthcare services. …
“Page 127: The AMA sold doctors out: the government will set wages.”
Those four items are false.
The copy of the Fernley sheet sent to this newspaper was signed by Debbie Landis and a group called Citizens Working for Fernley, but it did not have a contact number for Landis, who could not be reached for comment. CWFF has a website, but it does not have contact information, either. Landis is a former Nevada McCain for President worker.
A handwritten notation on the Fernley sheet, presumably written by Landis, reads, “IF YOU OPPOSE THE ABOVE HEALTH CARE REFORM BILL, TAKE ONE MINUTE & CALL” and lists phone numbers of government officials to call.
The problem is that “the above health care reform bill” does not exist. At any rate, the Democratic health-care bill does not do the things the Fernley sheet says it does.
PolitiFact, a renowned website of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times that checks political claims and ranks them “true,” “mostly true,” “half-true,” “barely true,” “false,” and “pants on fire!” did an analysis of the Fernley sheet as it is appearing around the web.
That analysis was signed by Angie Drobnic Holan, who has also analyzed President Obama’s claims about health care. She has yet to give Obama a good grade for accuracy. This was her analysis of the Fernley message:
“Most of what the email says is wrong. In fact, it’s a clearinghouse of bad information circulating around the web about proposed health-care changes, so we thought it would be helpful to address a bunch of its claims.”
PolitiFact then provided a point-by-point examination of 15 of the 40-plus claims in the Fernley sheet and found just one to be true (“Page 72: All private healthcare plans must conform to government rules to participate in a Healthcare Exchange”).
To double-check its analysis, PolitiFact sent a copy to Kaiser Family Foundation analyst Jennifer Tolbert, who has scrutinized the health-care proposals of both parties. Tolbert was shocked by the content of the email message.
“It’s awful,” she said. “It’s flat-out, blatant lies. It’s unbelievable to me how they can claim to reference the legislation and then make claims that are blatantly false.”
The truth is still putting on its boots—compared to the 6,000-plus sites that have posted the Fernley sheet, only 173 have posted the PolitiFact findings. (Links to both the original “fact” sheet and the PolitiFact findings can be found on our Newsview blog at www.newsreview.com/newsview.)
It is uncertain who wrote the original email message on which the Fernley sheet is based. The Fernley version attributes its content to a Herman Statum, who is not further identified. There is a former military police officer by that name who writes conservative internet articles. But other versions identify the author as a Peter Fleckenstein, a conservative blogger. The fact that no one has stepped forward to firmly claim authorship may be revealing.
Why would people buy into material that on its face is preposterous? It’s becoming an important question because false information—often deliberate lies—is becoming an important part of public policy debates.
James Richardson, a Nevada sociology professor and former opinion pollster, says most people like to believe even “the most outrageous things” that reinforce their preconceptions—and discount accurate information that clashes with those preconceptions.
There have been some instances of members of Congress being booed when they read information from the bill itself that disproved information given in audience questions, as though people did not want their previous notions exposed.
“I don’t really fully understand it,” Richardson said. “I just know it’s a phenomenon that’s been well documented in social-psychological research that people seek out reinforcing opinions—reinforcing to that which they already believe.”
Richardson says that research done by people in his field is used by public relations people to manipulate citizens, which is why most people need to know as much as possible about how politics works.
“The other side of it is, anybody that thinks this is just human weakness is mistaken. This is being orchestrated by some folks who are well aware of these tendencies on the part of human beings.”
He said no one should get too smug about the way “other folks” buy into things like the Fernley sheet.
“Well, there’s social-psychological research … that indicates people, when they read the news, they read articles with which they agree and which reinforce their opinions,” Richardson said. “And you and I do the same thing, by the way. Maybe you don’t, but I do [laughs]. I don’t read Bill O’Reilly. I don’t bother, you know. I know he’ll just piss me off, so I don’t bother to read him.”
In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer of Scientific American says such people often do not provide positive defenses of their own views. Instead they take shots at factual information to weaken the other side. In combat against evolution, for instance, since science by definition is nuanced and subtle, it is simple for critics to exploit the normal robust debate among scientists to create doubt that science itself supports evolution, a proposition that is not really in dispute.
Another handwritten notation on the Fernley sheet reads, “THE HOTTEST PLACE IN HELL IS RESERVED FOR THOSE WHO REMAIN NEUTRAL IN TIMES OF GREAT MORAL CONFLICT,” a quote the sheet attributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. But that part, too, is incorrect.
According to the Kennedy Library, the quote is actually from Robert Kennedy, who was quoting John Kennedy, who was misquoting Dante, who wrote that neither heaven nor hell would accept neutralists.