Staying on Message

The barrage of e-mail scams and phony claims in the office tests critical thinking skills.

During the recent presidential campaign, Americans found themselves bombarded via the Internet with all sorts of "revelations" about the candidates. In democratizing access to the media, anyone can now set up a Web site or blog or flood e-mail anonymously with all sorts of mis- and disinformation.

The American public receives much of its information unfiltered by intermediaries, like the media or interest groups that help us validate and interpret what is coming in. When dealing with traditional sources, we have a pretty good idea of where they are coming from and a sense of their reliability. Does anybody really believe the blaring headlines on the tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter?

In the workplace, we face similar challenges learning how to deal with information from sources whose motives or competence we cannot always evaluate. Whether it is done to create large-scale disruptions, or to extort money, or to indulge some misguided persons sense of whimsy, we see a barrage of traffic ranging from:

  • Apparently benign messages that offer us products we don't want.
  • Messages that warn us of dangers that don't exist (bookmark www.snopes.com and check it out if you're tempted to forward such messages).
  • Deliberate disinformation about public figures.
  • Phishing messages that look like they are from a known or trusted source and are designed to get you to provide personal information by linking to a site controlled by the sender or replying to the message.

Lowering the barrier into the communications world is not entirely bad. The resultant diversity of voices allows us to hear perspectives that might not be in the mainstream. Across media, we are seeing niche players who address the needs and interests of small segments.

This phenomenon is called disintermediation. It's defined as the elimination of an intermediary in a transaction between two parties, and it places a greater burden on the recipient. Without an intermediary whose competence, authenticity and perspectives we understand and can verify, we must be far more discerning. A piece by M.E. Kabay of Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., offers a simple prescription applying critical thinking principles to protect yourself:

  • Question the authenticity of the "From" line of an e-mail message (which might not correctly identify the source).
  • Question the technical competence of the sender to evaluate the quality of the content or attachment (which might not correlate with how loveable and friendly Aunt Gladys is).
  • Question the authenticity of the labeling of the information (which might not really be a document at all but could be an executable program).
  • Question the safety of any attachment.

Critical thinking is the best defense. Even if you are under an avalanche of e-mail in the office, question everything you read. If it sounds wrong, check it out. If it is wrong, let the sender know-don't pass it on.

Franklin S. Reeder teaches, writes and consults on public information policy and technology issues after a career in public service that spanned more than 35 years.

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