Even If It's by E-mail, It Can Still Be Slander

CINCINNATI—Procter & Gamble Co. thought the rumors had died down.

But they hadn't figured on e-mail.

For years, a rumor circulated that the Cincinnati-based home products manufacturer had ties with the Church of Satan and that 10% of its annual profits funded the church. This culminated in several court cases in the early '80s in which the company was vindicated of the accusations and some of those who disseminated the rumor were fined for libel.

That outcome would be enough to dissuade future rumor-mongers, Procter & Gamble thought.

But rumors that once spread person to person by word of mouth are now sent to droves at a mere keystroke on a computer—with no dependable way of tracing their origin. Welcome to the world of e-slander.

Many in corporate and media circles are concerned over the ease and speed with which groundless claims now circulate electronically. Moreover, many well-intentioned Christian e-mailers face a seemingly novel moral question daily—to believe or not to believe what shows up in my in-box?

Msgr. William Smith, a moral theologian at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., thinks the question is simple. “It's a matter of calumny and a direct violation of the Eighth Commandment,” he said. “Just because it involves technology doesn't mitigate the offense.—[T]hat it's done over a computer has nothing to do with it—it's just plain wrong.”

But a computer technician in Arlington, Va.—he asked to be identified only as Mike—said it's more complicated than that. Having recently received an e-mail from a friend which claimed that Procter & Gamble recently came clean on its ties with Satanism, he talked the matter over with his wife and decided it was serious enough to look into. “I told my wife about the rumor and we decided that maybe we should send for a transcript.” Meanwhile, Mike sent the e-mail to a number of friends, all of whom would be “concerned to know about attacks against the Church,” he said.

In defense of passing the rumor along, Mike distinguished between those who invent the lies and those who, in good faith, take them at face value and send them to friends. “I think to claim that passing along e-mails without checking their veracity is a lie, is pretty strong,” he said. “There's a valley of difference between sending out spam e-mails that are scandalous and informing close friends of something that's a concern—to say, ‘Hey, I received this, what do you think?’ Without question, I'd be hesitant to call that slander. If I thought it was false, I wouldn't propagate it,” he said. So thought the friend who sent Mike—and 41 others—the message about Procter & Gamble.

A Captive Audience

Who gets these e-mails? Often, it's people like Mike. Those who, for one reason or another, wish to harm a big corporation or a public figure often single out Catholics and other Christians who take their faith seriously. They play upon their duty to defend Christ and his Church by claiming that someone connected with a corporation or government has made some scandalous statement about Christianity on television. To give their claims the appearance of truth, they often cite a specific date and episode of the show on which the person was to have made the remark.

They even provide the address and episode number, urging concerned parties to send away for a transcript of the show. The invitation is enough to convince most people that the tapes are indeed out there, and so they believe the lie wholesale. One recent example of this is an e-mail that certain Catholic media outlets have recently received regarding Attorney General Janet Reno.

The e-mail stated that on the June 26 edition of “60 Minutes,” Reno said that “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 giving to a Christian cause, who home-schools for 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 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 qualified for government interference.”

After sending the message about Reno to some friends, the woman who received this e-mail discovered it was a canard, and quickly informed those to whom she had sent it.

“I've long thought that the most important teaching in Catholic schools about computers is not how to use them, but the ethics of using them,” said Dan Andriacco, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “One issue is the ethics of drawing research materials. Are you researching, or simply reprinting something verbatim? But another dimension of ethics and the Internet is the distribution of false information.”

“On the one hand, the Internet is just a medium like books,” Andriacco continued. “But it's the first mass medium that lets ordinary people become the producers. Anyone can reach a large number if people on the Internet. It's fairly easy to set up a Web page or to recirculate something through e-mail or bulletin boards, he said. “In one sense, then, it's no different from other media, but in another it's very different because it has greater access and moves so fast—it requires a greater amount of vigilance.”

Andriacco added that he too received an e-mail this week that passed along the Procter & Gamble rumor. He said that because Procter & Gamble resides within the Cincinnati Archdiocese, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and his successor, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, have often spoken out in defense of the company. One of Archbishop Pilarczyk's letters, which calls upon those involved in spreading the rumor to stop, is posted on Procter & Gamble's Web site.

“I'm not sure he [Archbishop Pilarczyk] knows it's resurfaced,” Andriacco said. “Last week I received one e-mail message regarding it, and I got a telephone call about it this week from Florida. Both people had heard a rumor that the chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble mentioned his connection with Satanism on a recent issue of ‘Sally Jesse Raphael.’ They wanted to know whether Archbishop Pilarczyk still stands for what he said previously,” Andriacco said. “I sent back a message saying that the rumor is a lie. I also told them to check out the Sally Jesse Raphael Web site, which posts a message saying that the rumor is a hoax. Sending them to the Web site is the most concrete way to respond, because it sends people back to the source of the rumor.”

Counting the Costs

Typically, large companies like Procter & Gamble practice a policy of ignoring calumny. They figure it's too costly to respond to every detraction, however unfounded it may be. But the Procter & Gamble rumor became so nettlesome to corporate headquarters, which shielded some 50,000 calls about the rumor during a three-month period in 1982, that it decided to track down its source. As it turned out, the rumor was circulated by two Amway distributors.

And there have been suits since that case in '82. “We're talking significant amounts of money, millions of dollars over the years,” said Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Linda Urley. She said that the rumors started to circulate in the late '70s and have continued with varying levels of intensity since then. “Somebody will morph the story or introduce some new facts to it,” she said. “In the '80s, they said our CEO appeared on the Merv Griffin Show or on Phil Donohue, now it's Sally Jesse Raphael.”

On the question of bearing false witness against one's neighbor, the

Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “He becomes guilty:—of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor—of detraction who, without objectively valid reason discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them—of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (No. 2477). The Catechism then advises, “to avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (No. 2478).

Regarding modern means of communications, No. 2494 of the Catechism says: “Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity.…The proper exercise of this right demands that the content of communication be true and—within the limits set by justice and charity—complete. Further, it should be communicated honestly and properly. This means that in the gathering and in the publication of news, the moral law and the legitimate rights and dignity of man should be upheld.”

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.