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Web of Lies: Debunking Internet’s Hill Hoaxes

Did you know that some Members of Congress are felons?

Or that angry female lawmakers, led by “Rep. Barbara Bell of California,” walked off the House floor to protest a possible war in Iraq? Or that Congress may pass a bill charging e-mailers a fee every time they send a message?

Of course none of this is true. But rumors — fueled by mass distribution via the Internet and e-mail — persist, alleging the darndest things.

While such claims seem outrageous to Capitol Hill regulars, and any avid C-SPAN watcher knows there is no Congresswoman by the name of Barbara Bell, many people forward the charges because they somewhat agree with the slander, says Barbara Mikkelson, co-founder of www.snopes.com, a Web site that debunks urban legends and myths.

The hoax “says something that some people inherently agree with, so they forward it,” she said. “It’s a good gauge of the popular mood.”

As for the felonious lawmakers, because people routinely call politicians crooks, in the minds of some it’s probably not a leap to believe some Members are actually criminals.

Mikkelson traced that hoax’s origins to Canada, where baseless allegations against members of Parliament were disseminated and eventually spread to the United States.

The U.S. version starts: “29 members of Congress have been accused of spousal abuse, 7 have been arrested for fraud, 19 have been accused of writing bad checks.”

Mikkelson and her husband, David, who run the site, do not just tell dubious visitors they have been duped. The couple also explain where the e-mail departs from reality.

For example, the lengthy rebuttal to the above claim reads in part: “for this article is nothing more than a cheap smear: no one in it is cited as actually having done something wrong, but merely of having been ‘arrested’ or ‘accused,’ or being a ‘defendant,’ or having been ‘stopped.’ Isn’t our system supposed to be based upon the presumption that a person is innocent until proved guilty?”

The pervasiveness of such e-mails has reached the point where some Members feel they must address the bunk. For example, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) posted a clarification on her Web site about the fictional Barbara Bell.

“I, Barbara Lee, did offer an amendment in opposition to the Bush resolution authorizing force against Iraq and I have been a vocal opponent of the President’s doctrine of preemption and rush to war,” she wrote. “I did not, however, lead or participate in any supposed walkout by women Members.”

People who regularly follow politics should be able to dismiss such e-mails quickly. Often the author does not have the style down correctly; for example, the writer may leave out party and state ID — or use fictitious names.

Then there are e-mails that come from the department of half-truths and twisted facts, including one oft-told piece of Hill folklore.

According to the tall tale, then-Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), better known as “Gopher” on the television series “The Love Boat,” ran across a cheeky page in a Capitol elevator who quipped: “Lido Deck or Promenade Deck?”

And then Grandy had him summarily fired.

In fact, it was Grandy himself who cracked the joke, and he never got anyone fired, Mikkelson wrote.

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