Playing “Telephone” in Cyberspace

Few people make it through childhood without at some time or other playing the game of Telephone, though they may call it other names. In case you don’t remember or you’ve never been a child, here’s how it works. You sit in a circle, and one person begins by whispering something into the next person’s ear. That person then whispers it (as best he or she understood) to the next person, and so on all around the circle. By the time the phrase reaches the end, it usually has been mangled beyond recognition, often with hilarious results. Not only is the game fun, but it’s an interesting study in human nature – that is, in how the imagination fills in the gaps when information is missing, and the memory accepts it as reality.

The same thing happens when we watch a movie. The projector throws 24 frames per second up onto the screen, but if that was all it threw up, it would be a big blur, like nothing more than a projector throwing up. But the projector wisely inserts a brief blackout between images, knowing that the viewer’s mind will immediately conjure up an image to bridge the gap, and the viewer will believe that his or her eyes actually saw it, and will interpret the whole thing as a continuous flow. When you watch a movie, half of it is really just hallucination! (Although it’s more formally known as “persistence of vision”.)

When it comes to what we hear, the gaps are much larger – and thus the distortion in the game of Telephone. And when it comes to what we read or what we try to remember after a considerable time has passed, the gaps are larger still, and therefore there is an even greater potential for distortion. We all fill in the blanks; it’s the way we’re wired, and it might actually help us survive under some circumstances. But in 21st Century America, it’s gone way beyond survival mode. We’re wallowing in hallucination, in the form of loony rumors circulating on the Internet and the cesspool of talking head TV that passes for journalism. We’re still playing Telephone, but using modern technology to do it.

This first occurred to me several years ago when Ronald Reagan died. Shortly thereafter, I heard a comment about it from an RRR. (Rabidly Right-Wing Relative. We all have them, don’t we? And don’t they make family gatherings entertaining?) Actually, the comment was about Air America, the since-defunct “librul” radio network. The comment was to the effect that the people at Air America had said they were glad Reagan was dead.

Now I’d already learned long before that you NEVER want to suggest an RRR might be… um, a little mistaken about something unless you want the gathering to get even more entertaining – and in the process get yourself branded as a hopeless commie librul. But that remark just didn’t sound right. Granted, Air America had no great love for The Gipper. But unlike their right-wing media counterparts, I had never known them to be uncivil – which is probably why they didn’t survive.

So at the first opportunity I did some Internet research. And the first thing I saw was that the episode had been repeated repeatedly, and passed on as the truth. As I recall, some versions of the story even quoted someone at Air America as actually saying, “I’m glad he’s dead” or some such.

But then I did something really revolutionary: I traced the rumor to its source. That’s often a pretty easy thing to do in this Cyber age (it took all of about 10 minutes), so when I see people repeating rumors unquestioningly, I can only assume that they don’t really want to know the facts. That’s the conclusion I draw, for instance, when I see Tea Partiers marching and railing against “socialized medicine” and the “Nazi” president and “death panels” and so on. How many of them even know what socialism is? One in a thousand? One in ten thousand? How many realize that the communists and the Nazis were on opposing sides? And how many of them have actually read the health care bill? Even ONE? If so, that person is a great rarity – reportedly, even the lawmakers who voted on it didn’t read it. I confess I didn’t read the whole thing either, but I did read whatever sections of it were supposedly so evil, every time I came across one of those forwarded emails we all get. And in every case, the actual bill stated something very different from what the rumor stated – in some cases, it was the exact opposite!

In the case of the Reagan/ Air America incident, there really was no incident. It all started not with Air America, but with one of the pundits on some other network. (It was probably Fox “News”, but I don’t recall for certain, and on this occasion I’m going to invoke my once-annually Fox privilege of not doing any research. Besides which, I want to demonstrate that it’s possible to fill in gaps without getting hallucinatory.) That person said something like, “The people over at Air America are probably celebrating right now.” (Those may not be the exact words, so don’t quote me. I don’t want to be part of your Telephone game, thank you.) Thus, many viewers apparently assumed that the Air Americans really WERE celebrating, and therefore that they were glad Reagan was dead, all from that a fictitious quote bubbled up out of someone’s persistence of vision.

In a perfect world, any Internet outrage in this matter would have been over the childish and irresponsible conduct of the pundit, rather than over Air America saying what they didn’t say. In a perfect world, people would trace rumors to their sources, rather than blindly passing them on because it suits their ideology. But then there would be no need for sites like this one. And adults might not play their backstabbing version of Telephone so much.

And wouldn’t that be boring?



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