It is unfortunate that the threat to our nation from violent Islamic radicals has led to suspicion and fear of all Muslims, many of whom are our coworkers, friends, and neighbors. One of the many ways this fear is fueled is through misinformation circulating on the Internet in the form of anti-Islamic emails.
The Internet is a propagandists dream come true. Any clever individual with access to the Internet can quickly spread hatred literally around the world. The way it is done is through us. By forwarding it to our friends, as we are encouraged to do, we become unknowing accomplices. What genius! The fact that an alarming message comes from a friend almost guarantees we will read it and out of concern we will pass it on to others.
In 1957 the journalist and social critic Vance Packard wrote a disturbing book titled “The Hidden Persuaders” in which he explored how “insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences” have led to efforts to “channel our unthinking habits…and thought processes.” Packard revealed how advertisers, politicians and others use sophisticated methods to influence our thinking and manipulate our behavior. Today the Internet has made us more vulnerable not only to these same “Hidden Persuaders” but also to hate mongers. All it takes is a basic knowledge of propaganda techniques.
A typical email starts with a warning designed to invoke fear such as ”wake up America before it is too late.” It next attempts to establish credibility by attributing the content to a respected (although anonymous) authority, and then often proceeds to list a combination of half-truths and lies about Islam. Extremist examples are presented as representative of the beliefs and practices of all Muslims. This is as crazy as thinking that all Christians believe the same thing. The message provides a one-sided argument designed to support a hateful conclusion. The argument is almost always cloaked in deeply held American values such as patriotism, democracy, family, faith, and honor. The email is designed to appeal to our emotions in an attempt to short-circuit our ability to think critically.
As a result of our biases and suspicions, which the message reinforces, we are only too willing to follow the advice of the unknown author and “forward this to all your friends.” I think it is helpful to remind ourselves that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are just like you and I.
The reason these emails are effective is because the author counts on us to be intellectually lazy, to simply accept their message at face value. The alternative is to be skeptical of any such email you receive. Today we can quickly check the validity of a message using Google or Snopes.com. If you find the email to be false you can do two things; gently push back on the sender with the facts and most importantly do not forward the message yourself.
The terrorist threat to our country is real, however we need to realistically understand the threat absent the embellishment, exaggeration, and misinformation common today. More importantly we must realize that the vast majority of American Muslims are just as patriotic as American Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or Christians.
Alan L. Wilgus, Major, US Army (Ret) is a former Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) officer familiar with how propaganda is used to influence both an enemy on the battlefield and a civilian population. He has a bachelors degree in behavioral science and a masters in organizational development. For the last twenty-years he has designed and implemented high-performance work systems for Fortune 500 companies. He is active in community service having served as president of the Smyrna Golden K Kiwanis club. He and his wife Helen live in Smyrna.