The Bible contains strong warnings about gossip and slander. "A perverse ma0+-0.n sows strife, And a whisperer separates the best of friends" (Proverbs 16:28). "Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; And where there is no talebearer, strife ceases" (Proverbs 26:20). Yet gossip continues to be a plague upon God's people because, in all honesty, we enjoy it: "The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles" (Proverbs 26:22). Now technology has brought an entirely new way of gossiping. It is just as sinful as before, but now it is easier than ever to slander and lie about others. We can gossip electronically, via email!
Incredibly, such gossiping allows Christians to do things they would never do in a face to face fashion. We all know that repeating dubious reports to others is gossip and wrong. If someone told you "Brother so-and-so is a Satan worshiper" we all know that such a report would need to be personally checked before it was broadcast around. To do otherwise would be gossiping, right? How then does that change when the medium for spreading lies and slander becomes electronic? Is it right to gossip about people over email, when we would never do such "face to face?" Yet my email box brims with electronic gossip nearly every day.
For example, did you get the email about Proctor and Gamble's CEO going on the Sally Jesse Raphael show and announcing he is a Satanist? I received this email from no less than ten different people. Each email me assured me this was all fact, that I could verify P & G's ties to Satanism, that I could write Sally Jesse and get a transcript, P & G was changing their logo to a "666" to let everyone know they were a Satanic company, etc. The point of the email was to urge all Christians to boycott P & G products. Yet it is all a lie. No P & G executive has ever gone on any television talk show. P & G is not "coming out" on their satanic ties. Their CEO is not a devil worshiper. P & G has dealt with rumors about their logo (no, it isn't a satanic symbol either) for years. Several years ago this CEO rumor started, originally with the CEO supposedly going on the Donahue show. Now the rumor has mutated and says he went on the Sally Jesse show. But again, it is not true at all. There is not a shred of truth to any of it. How many people are boycotting P & G products based on these lies? How much harm has been done to this innocent company by well-meaning Christians who simply didn't check their facts before they clicked "forward?" As an extra word of caution, you should know that P & G is so tired of all of this that they are actively suing (and winning!) those who are participate in these malicious rumors!
Have you seen the rumor about Janet Reno? Supposedly she went on 60 Minutes and said "A cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ; who frequently attends Bible studies; who has a high level of financial giving to a Christian cause; who home schools their children; who has accumulated survival foods and has a strong belief in the Second Amendment; and who distrusts big government. Any of these may qualify a person as a cultist but certainly more than one of these would cause us to look at this person as a threat and his family as being in a risk situation that qualifies for government interference." Guess what? It is a lie. Whether you like or approve of Janet Reno and her politics is simply not the issue. Does her political stand on some issues justify Christians spreading rumors and lies about her? Of course not.
These are just two of examples that could be multiplied over. Just because something shows up in your email box crying "wolf" doesn't mean it is true!
Let me make some observations about these multiplying urban legends and rumors. First, some folks are pretty gullible. What if the CEO of a major company was a Satanist? How stupid would he have to be to go on national televison and tell everyone? Does that sound very likely? Why then do we believe this kind of nonsense, falling it for "hook, line and sinker?" Most of these Internet rumors and gossip are transparently false. Have you seen the one about the American Cancer Society donating two cents for every person who gets a copy of an email plea? Honestly, how is the ACS going to keep up with that? Who checks the list? When will it end - if it were true ACS could go bankrupt off the deal! Further, where does the ACS get all this extra money to throw around based on email forwarding? Recently I received (for the twentieth time) the infamous Clinton Body Count email. It lists scores of people with some connection to Bill Clinton who all died under "mysterious circumstances." Most of it is just made up and not true. But even if it were, doesn't anyone find it amazing that Clinton can bump off minor players in his scheming but somehow couldn't deal with Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky? I'm not defending Bill Clinton by any means but just a little thinking ought to cause a person to say "Hey, wait a minute here!"
By the way, the supposed "Lost Day" that NASA computers found is also a hoax. Ditto for the Neiman Marcus/Bloomingdale's cookie recipe story, all stories claiming an email can infect your computer with a virus, and the repeated story that if you "forward this email 1000 times Microsoft will give you $1000." All are Internet hoaxes. All are obviously false. If we will just think before we click "forward" many times it will be apparent that we are being hoaxed.
Secondly, while some of the rumors on the Internet are silly and harmless (if not tiring and a waste of time) many are nothing but sinful gossip. The Janet Reno story and the P & G story cited above fall into this category. As Christians we bear responsibility for what we say and what we communicate to others. Slandering persons or companies is simply not right. Titus 3:2 reminds us to "speak evil of no one." 1 Timothy 5:13 warns about young widows who "learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not." Wouldn't being idle include wandering from Internet site to Internet site, emailing gossip about things we ought not?
To make it even worse, all this email gossip is just destroying the ability of a good medium to pass along real news and sound genuine alarms. So many untrue reports make it even more unlikely that anyone would believe a real report of danger if such arose.
Third, electronic gossip is a particularly sad sin because it is so easy to check out these rumors. P & G's web site has an area devoted to debunking these terrible lies (http://www.pg.com/rumor/index.html#sally). Several web sites are devoted exclusively to tracking urban legends and lies. Enter "urban legend" into any search engine and you will get a long list of such sites. I personally like the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's site (www.snopes.com) because it is searchable. It took only a moment to go to this site, enter "Reno" into their search form, and receive a full page of information discussing this rumor and its origins. Since it is so easy to find the truth, what possible excuse do we have for spreading lies?
The Internet and email are wonderful technological innovations that improve the quality of our lives dramatically. We can use these tools to spread the Gospel of Christ literally all over the globe. Let us make certain that we are not falling prey to perverting these tools into something that spreads the kingdom of darkness. "Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips and from a deceitful tongue" (Psalms 120:2).
From Abundant Life, Vol. 32, No. 9, Sept. 1999
By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 7.1; January 2000