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Oh, What a Tangled Web!

posted: 11.14.14 by Donna Winchell

I don’t share a lot of articles on Facebook. In fact, I share more cat and dog videos, usually in private messages to family members. When I ran across a posting of some remarks made by Ben Stein about the term “Holiday Trees” versus “Christmas Trees,” though, I thought it made some good points and naively shared it. One friend had already complained about how limiting Stein’s view of prayer is when I took the time to read some of the many comments that have been posted in response to the piece. I still think the article can be used to discuss argumentation, but I also discovered how much it has to offer as a means of teaching the dangers of trusting what you read on the Internet.

It seems, as one comment pointed out, that the piece was not written by Stein—or at least not all of it. Others pointed out warning signs that I had missed in a quick read. One, for instance, pointed out that Stein would not have misspelled the name of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Another was incensed by a factual error that “Stein” had made when he stated that the son of famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock had committed suicide (offered as evidence that Spock’s permissive baby raising techniques don’t work).  Stein did make a version of the opening statements of the piece, in 2005, not in 2012, as indicated, but much of the piece attributed to him is simply not his. Nor can it be considered a response to the suggestion that the White House had started calling its Christmas trees holiday trees, since that suggestion was not made until 2006, and that change in terminology has actually never taken place.

Consider the complexity of the Internet’s role in this controversy.  I shared the article because I saw it posted on Facebook. Other comments shared, however, sent me to Snopes.com to investigate its authenticity. I am not saying that Snopes.com is always correct either, but it can send up red flags. In this case it led me to other articles that break down what is Stein’s and what isn’t. I even learned that Spock’s grandson, who was schizophrenic, was the one who committed suicide. How cautiously we must tread! Ironically, the Internet that makes it possible for wrongly attributed comments to go viral also allows us to be sleuths investigating the authenticity of what we read.

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