To Forward Or Not To Forward? How Can We Tell?

A window into the world of, perhaps the most authoritative site addressing internet rumors out there:

July 15, 2010

At, Rumors Are Held Up to the Light


As Internet veterans know, there’s only one place to go for debunking or confirming the latest bit of rumor that just came into your e-mail box:, where 300,000 people a day drop in to find out if indeed Bill Gates is sending out free laptops, if President Obama is a Muslim or if Mikey from the Life commercials really died.

David and Barbara Mikkelson run this essential clearinghouse for truth out of their home in California, and I recently had the chance to interview Mr. Mikkelson for a “CBS News Sunday Morning” segment. Here’s an edited excerpt.

David Pogue: Where does the name Snopes come from?

David Mikkelson: Snopes come from a family of characters who recur in the works of William Faulkner. He typically had different families that represented a different strata of Southern society. And the Snopes were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But none of that has anything to do with the site. It just — I knew the name Snopes from having read William Faulkner.

It was my nom de net. And then when we started the site, it turned out to be sort of fortuitous. Because it is so short and catchy and distinctive.

DP: How do you make money from this?

DM: Just from the advertising on the pages. People do send us donations from time to time, but they’re fairly small.

DP: What are some of the hottest rumors right now going on?

DM: Well, let’s see, we happen to have a page about that. The top 25 items of the moment.

DP: I see here’s the cellphone directory one. I got that one yesterday — apparently, they’re gonna open up our cellphone numbers to telemarketers.

DM: It started out, like most of them do, with a kernel of truth. That some of the cellphone companies were going to make cellphone numbers available through a directory assistance service, which somehow got mutated into the idea that they were going to provide phone numbers en masse to telemarketers.

Which was never the intent, and the directory itself was never actually put together. But it still circulates. It used to be sort of like an annual thing, like it was going to happen unless you signed up for the Do Not Call list by February. So every January we’d see an explosion of it.

This second one is another case of that. It’s this idea that in August, that Mars is going to be remarkably close to Earth. You know, it’ll appear larger than any times in our lifetimes. Something like that actually happened, but back in August of 2003. So, it’s long since outdated.

There are things that are sort of seasonal. Like sort of household remedies for repelling mosquitoes, or treating bee stings. Those tend to pop up every year around this time of year. Or the idea that “In God We Trust” has been omitted from President dollar coins.

DP: Is that true?

DM: No. We actually have some of the coins over here. I had to get them to prove the point.

But it’s continually spread by people who’ve never actually seen one of these coins, who are unlikely ever to encounter one of these coins, but still urging people not to accept them because they don’t say, “In God We Trust.”

DP: What’s driving people to pass this stuff on?

DM: A lot of it is just people’s desire to do good. They think they’re being helpful by passing along something — a piece about a missing child, or warning you about some sort of crime that you might fall victim to.

Some of it is just people looking to show off. “I’m smart. I know this and you don’t.”

Some of it is attempts to prove other people wrong about things, usually of a political nature. A lot of things that are truly urban legends: things that have narratives, that have plots, and morals. They’re often a way that people encapsulate and pass along fears and anxieties. A lot of what we see is directly related to what’s going on in the world.

They’re also tacit ways of expressing or reinforcing prejudices. Maybe a crime rumor that has to do with gangs or Mexicans. And it’s — “Well, I’m not saying this about whatever group. It’s the story I heard says that they’re doing whatever.” It’s sort of a camouflage.

DP: What are some of the broad categories that these things tend to fall into?

DM: There are a lot of scams, of course, like the infamous Nigerian scam. But we get a lot of pieces about missing children. Prayer requests for sick children. And those are mixed in with hoaxes of “forward this message and AOL or some other company will donate three cents to the care of this cancer stricken child.”

DP: That one will not die. I’ve heard, “Forward this e-mail to a hundred people and you’ll get money from Bill Gates, or Microsoft will give money, or AOL will give money.”

DM: That one’s kind of funny, because it’s been running for so long. And people will write to us and say, “Well, I know the one about Microsoft was a hoax, and the one about Nike was a hoax. And the one about Honda was a hoax. And the one about Levi’s was a hoax. But I got this one about Sony giving away laptops. Is this true? (laughs) So there are times when you kind of throw up your hands and wonder if anybody’s actually learning anything.

DP: So you’re this essential Internet site, but you’re just a couple, in your house in California. There’s no chrome and glass skyscraper.

DM: That’s true, but, it’s not like we would work more efficiently if we were in an office somewhere. Or we had more modern furnishings. It’s true — sometimes people come away with the impression that we’re a large company with a headquarters somewhere. And a staff of hundreds of people.

DP: If you don’t mind, do a mini Snopes. I’d love to just run rapidfire through these very famous rumors. And have you just say “false”, “true”, “undetermined”.

DM: Fire away.

Dp: All right. So — Obama’s a Muslim. (LAUGH) True or false.

DM: Well, false.

DP: The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space.

DM: No, it’s not true. It’s sort of a double whammy. As in, no, you can’t see it from space. And there are man-made things that you could see from space that aren’t the Wall of China.

DP: The Chevy Nova was a failure in South America because Nova means “won’t go”– “No va.”

DM: It’s just some interesting thing that somebody made up based on the name, but it’s false. It didn’t really have any impact on sales.

DP: Mikey, the kid in the old Life cereal commercial, ate Pop Rocks and drank Coke, and his stomach exploded and he died.

DM: Yeah. Well, he told us he’s not dead, so I tend to believe him.

DP: But he disappeared off the air. We never saw him again.

DM: Yeah, a lot of child stars have had that happen to them. (LAUGH)

DP: O.K.. So, the lyrics “ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” actually refers to the plague.

DM: Yeah, it’s sort of a persistent class of legend that children’s nursery rhymes are all secret and coded messages referring to some contemporary events a long time ago. And they’re really just explanations people made up, because they sound nice. We actually demonstrated this phenomenon, because we have a section on our site, where we just made up a bunch of goofy rumors, just to —

DP: You made up rumors?

DM: Yes. Just to see if people would spread them. So, we made up, from whole cloth, this legend about the nursery rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence.” About how it was a secret code that pirates used to recruit members for their crew in taverns.

I have seen this quoted in books. I’ve seen this presented as fact on television shows. Even on urban legend-related television shows have claimed this as true. But it just shows that this is now proffered as the real explanation behind that nursery rhyme.

We kid about how we wonder if a few hundred years from now, there’s going to be explanations for “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,” had some reference to the Nixon Administration or something. You know?

DP: You would think that with the instant communications of Internet, that all this misinformation and urban legend stuff — that people would catch on that it’s not true.

DM: The flaw in that theory is that for a good many people, it’s not important whether things are true or not. It reflects what people want to believe. It reflects a worldview. It’s their way of passing along things that concern them. Things they’re afraid of.

Like it could be, “I don’t care if Richard Nixon really did this. It sounds like something he would have done.” A lot of people are unwilling to acknowledge anything that contradicts their worldview. So telling them that it’s false doesn’t necessarily slow them down. That’s how urban legends get started for the most case. Like the woman who supposedly put her poodle in the microwave to dry it off. And it exploded.

DP: That’s not true?

DM: No. Probably not. No, but you see a pattern in these kind of things: that when a new technology comes out, you start seeing disaster stories about that technology. And there is an underlying principle there. That people are wary of new technologies till they’ve been established and proved safe.

DP: Does it ever make you cynical about human nature? All this, day in and day out?

DM: Well sometimes. You know, it gets a little disheartening to see the same kinds of things going around time after time.

DP: Well, thank you so much. Is there anything else that you’d like to —

DM: Oh, you ran out of questions, did you? (LAUGH)

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 12:29 pm  Leave a Comment  


Well, we did it.  As a direct result of efforts from progressive Jews all over the world, the Rotem Bill is headed where it should have been headed all along: nowhere.  I know that many of us have been activated in these critical last days and weeks and we have hopefully heard by now that our emails and letters and calls were successful.

The below message was sent by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center.  It provides a nice conclusion to our recent actions while at the same time illustrating how important it is to remain engaged.

10 Av 5770
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I began writing this note in the Knesset.  It is the culmination of several days of intense advocacy with 30-40 Members of Knesset, government ministers, and top aides to the Prime Minister of Israel. Joining this remarkable effort were key leaders of the Israeli and North American Reform and Conservative communities and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Our meetings have included from the executive branch an array of current cabinet ministers or deputy ministers (and former ministers), the cabinet secretary and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff; heads of key parties including Kadima and Labor (such as Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni) and some of the most influential figures in the Knesset.  They involved interviews with a broad range of Israeli and international media.  Every day there were setbacks and significant gains, resulting in the Prime Minister of Israel declaring clearly that for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people, this bill could not pass.  Even then there were threats of parties quitting or bringing down the government and there were intense negotiations between the Prime Minister’s office and both Shas and Avigdor Lieberman (the Foreign Minister and head of the Israel Beiteinu party).

Only now, as the hours go by on the last day of this Knesset session before a three month recess, is it clear that this bill will not go forward – thanks to all of you who supported this campaign. The hopes of the Diaspora community and a significant part of the Israeli population have been affirmed.

11 Av 5770
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reflections this morning

We forged a remarkable, effective campaign.  It mobilized grassroots and influentials from across the world and throughout Israel, successfully stopping a conversion bill in the Knesset that would have solidified the lock of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli religious life, undermined the Reform and Conservative Movements, and threatened to create a major and permanent rift in Israel-Diaspora relations.

The leaders who flew to Israel were backed by tens of thousands of Jews who emailed, called, wrote, and visited Israeli officials in North America and in Israel.  Our rabbis were particularly effective in mobilizing their congregants and making our views heard.  The help of the CCAR was essential in this.

The Movements, the Federations and our activists will continue to work together over the next six months during which time the government has promised there will be no activity on the conversion bill.  We will use that time to work with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the Prime Minister, bill sponsor MK David Rotem and others to ensure that any final bill respects the diversity of Jewish life and practice in Israel and around the world.

For those who want a clear description of the bill and the deleterious impact it would have had on Jewish life, see both an article by HUC-JIR President David Ellenson that appeared in the Jerusalem Post and my own piece in the NY Jewish Week.

Why were we able to stop the bill: Six factors to remember and things for you to do

1. While I am proud of the central role the Religious Action Center and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) played, as well as that of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), in my several decades working at the RAC (where we have particularly close relations with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Federations of North America), I can not remember a smoother, more cooperative effort among Movements and Federation systems than these six weeks have provided – particularly the past ten days since MK Rotem surprisingly moved to pass the bill in the middle of our negotiations. Working with Rabbis Julie Schonfeld (Executive Vice President of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly) and Rabbi Steve Wernick (Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism) and their Israel staff was exciting.  They bring new leadership to the Conservative Movement that can strengthen our common endeavors.

2. We are making significant progress in Israel. I lived through the Law of Return battle 25 years ago and the conversion battle a decade ago. The degree to which members of Knesset know our Movements, consider our representatives important and effective political players and take our Movements seriously as major parts of Diaspora life that Israel needs and a growing presence in Israel, was markedly stronger. At the same time, it is clear that too few of the members really understood the issues. Even MKs who are generally our allies didn’t fully understand the specifics of our concerns and objections. Our IRAC and Movement’s staff did a truly fantastic job in moving the Knesset members but we still have work to do. It would not be possible to exaggerate how well known, well-liked and respected our Gilad Kariv (head of the IMPJ) and Anat Hoffman (IRAC Director) and IRAC’s key lobbyist Loren Puris are. Their influence gives us enormous clout. Similarly, ARZA’s brand new director, Rabbi Danny Allen, is a well-known figure on the Israel scene and brought immense skills to our effort.

If you could see these Reform Jewish leaders in action you would be so proud, and ARZA, the major funding arm for IRAC and IMPJ, deserves our urgent support and contributions.

What we can do right now

3. We need to pay special tribute to the JFNA.  Never have they been so engaged in such a campaign for religious pluralism.  Jerry Silverman, its new president, moved all his commitments around and spent two weeks in Israel to help lead this fight.  As extensive as our access and influence is, JFNA as the funding arm for the United Israel Appeal and its institutional role with the Jewish Agency has enormous access of its own that complemented ours.  Jerry put it all at our disposal.  Even in his brief tenure, he has become a well known figure at the highest levels of the Israeli government.  And among other things, he is deeply committed to strengthening federation-synagogue ties.  Please take a moment and call or email your federation director and thank them for JFNA’s support for our efforts and for Jerry’s wonderful leadership.

In the end, what won this for us was the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to oppose this legislation, warning it was a bill that could tear the Jewish people apart. He held to that even against threats by Shas to bring down his government.  Call your consulate, the Israeli Embassy, or email Prime Minister Netanyahu

4. Thank him for his stance on behalf of Jewish unity and Reform Jewish rights.

5. Over the past five weeks, a central player who arose so eloquently and determinedly to support our efforts was Natan Sharansky currently the head of the Jewish Agency.  His influence and determination were crucial to our success.

6. So concerned were Jews in North America that it evoked the very rare step of eight Jewish U.S. Senators writing a letter to Ambassador Oren (who himself played a constructive role in conveying our concerns throughout the government) to share with the Prime Minister. This received a lot of attention. It has been publicly stated that the organizer was Sen. Ron Wyden and the other signers were Senators Feinstein, Kohl, Feingold, Lautenberg, Cardin, Franken and Levin. In addition, almost all the Jewish Members of the House met with Ambassador Oren last week and the concerns shared by most were strongly conveyed to him. Thanks to those senators and the Jewish representatives for their willingness to speak from the heart.

To all of you in our Movement who wrote and called and contributed and supported: Thank you!


David Saperstein

PS: One final note. Every level of the URJ family was involved in making this a success.  The RAC staff, including Mark Pelavin, Barbara Weinstein, and Sean Thibault were involved in the logistics and coordination of these efforts, as were a range of people in New York, including our top leadership –  Rabbis Eric Yoffie and Daniel Freelander, along with Rabbi Yoffie’s assistant, Jean Bowdish, and our new communications director Deborah Goldberg, and Rabbi Gary Bretton Granator, director of the WUPJ, who mobilized the international Jewish community.  Above all, a special shout out to Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, the URJ’s Chief Program Officer, who worked tirelessly and effectively  over these  past months coordinating all of these efforts.

I mention all of these people because I believe strongly that the URJ and the RAC have the strongest staffs in American Jewish life.  I am proud to be part of this every day.

Published in: on July 24, 2010 at 12:53 am  Comments (1)  


It is with sadness that I awoke this morning to the news that France’s lower house of Parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban the wearing of the burka in public.  The burka is the veil worn by some Muslim women and is a part of a larger push for French Nationalism… or perhaps it’s just pandering to the anti-Muslim far right.  Either way, it is a law that directly targets one group and their religious practice.  As a Jew, I simply cannot accept this course of action promoted by the State.

A friend of mine asked an interesting question which I will repeat on this forum, a question about which I am curious as to how you would respond: How would the world have reacted if Israel, rather than France, had today voted to ban the Islamic veil in public?

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Call For Action

Progressive Judaism is once again under attack in Israel.  Two major events are coalescing to compete for headlines: the Rotem Bill, which would deny acceptance of diaspora conversions in Israel (it’s more complicated, but that’s the idea) and the arrest of Anat Hoffman for trying to pray.  These are dark times which need a glimmer of hope.  May we be motivated to work to defend the rights of the non-Orthodox in Israel.

See below for a posting from Anat:

Dear Friends of IRAC,

Today appeared to be an excellent day for the ultra-Orthodox hegemony here in Israel.

Before 9 AM, I was arrested for carrying a sefer Torah on the women’s side of the Western Wall. At the same time just miles away, the conversion bill – that would change forever the definition of who is a Jew in Israel – passed its first vote in the Knesset.

The ultra-Orthodox are applauding the events of today. They succeeded in preventing women from carrying a Torah and praying at the holiest site of the Jewish people, and they moved one step closer to erasing all recognition ever achieved for Reform and Conservative conversion in Israel.

It seems like it was a good day for them, and they may be celebrating. But in fact today was a dark day for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and for those working against religious pluralism and civil rights around the world. The real outcome of their “victories” will be the enlivening of the 85% of Diaspora Jewry, which is non-Orthodox, belonging in large part to the Reform or Conservative Movement.

The events of today bring to light the moral bankruptcy of the antiquated, violent, and intolerant Judaism that defines the ultra-Orthodox strand of Judaism in Israel today. This stands in contrast to our progressive Judaism that is committed to the equality inherent in every individual – man or woman, Jew by birth or Jew by choice.

There is an expression that I love – we must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. I and the other leaders of the Israeli Reform Movement will take care of things on the ground here in Israel – the police, the courts, the Knesset. Now you must take care of the Conversion bill.

In the next 24 hours, send the attached letter demanding that the Israeli government listen to our voice, our unified voice calling for a Judaism of openness and tolerance. This is not an issue affecting only converts – it is an issue that threatens the very unity of the Jewish people.
Today starts the countdown of your moving into action to reject this dangerous brand of Judaism. Our voices will be heard, and through all of us working together, the ultra-Orthodox “victories” of today will prove obsolete.

Please copy and paste the attached letter to your own email, and send it to the Prime Minister, and forward this urgent call to your friends and family by clicking here.


Anat Hoffman

The Israel Religious Action Center is a department of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.
Prime Minister Netanyahu: Prime.Minister’

The Honorable Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
Jerusalem, Israel

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

We write to request your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation being brought forward by MK David Rotem.

We are deeply concerned about the intention to grant the Chief Rabbinate sole control over conversion in Israel.  Such legislation would be an open attack on the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry, which composes the majority of world Jewry.

While we are supportive of efforts to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel, the overall impact of the Rotem Bill will set back these efforts. Should this bill be enacted, it will exacerbate a widening gap between Diaspora and Israel communities, which we are working very hard to avoid.

Therefore, we believe it is imperative that you, as leader of Israel, and as one who cares deeply about the well-being of Klal Yisrael, intervene and urge immediate withdrawal of this bill.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 2:33 am  Leave a Comment