Careless spread of misinformation corrupts public debate

“The trouble with most folks isn’t so much their ignorance as knowing so many things that ain’t so.”

Josh Billings said that 150 years before the Internet was invented. You wonder what he would think about the myths that flow freely today, from blog to website to email, unchallenged and accepted as fact by people who simply pass them on to others.

It isn’t hard to find the truth about most of these email myths.

Go to, “a website designed to be the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”

I have yet to find a serious error on this website, but it is easy enough to follow up on what Snopes says by going directly to the primary sources it usually cites. And there are other good websites that cover much of the same territory.

Recently I received a forwarded email from a good friend. It said that when members of the House and Senate leave Congress, they receive their full salaries — $174,000 a year — for life. Given this “fact,” it went on to argue that we ought to balance the budget by ending this outrageous pension.

It would be hard to disagree, if the $174,000 figure were correct. But the figure is wildly wrong.

Here is just a short part of the Snopes analysis: “It is not true that congressmen continue to draw their same pay, until they die. The size of their pensions is determined by a number of factors (primarily length of service, but also factors such as when they joined Congress, their age at retirement, their salary, and the pension options they chose when they enrolled in the retirement system) and by law cannot exceed 80 percent of their salary at the time of their retirement.”

Not one member of Congress has ever retired on a pension close to $174,000 a year.

In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, as of Oct. 1, 2006, only 413 former members of Congress were receiving pensions.

They had retired under two different systems; 290 of them under the Civil Service Retirement System were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972 and 123 of them under the Federal Employees Retirement System were receiving an average annual pension of $35,952.

A couple of days after I got my friend’s email, a letter to the editor appeared in this newspaper.

Members of Congress “have given themselves a lifetime pension equal to 100 percent of their pay,” it said.

Shortly after that, I was speaking to a forum in New Castle County and someone in the audience started a very thoughtful question by stating as fact that members of Congress receive a pension for life of 100 percent of their annual salary.

How can so many people believe something that is clearly false? And how can the falsehood persist for so long? This particular email has been circulating since 2003, and it is just one of many about Congress.

The following week in a Community View piece in this newspaper, a contributor stated as fact that “the best lifelong free health care is available at no cost … to members of Congress.”

The truth? Retired members contribute to their health care costs and are part of the same plan available to other federal employees.
I’ve seen another viral email this year that expresses outrage over the “fact” that members of Congress do not participate in Social Security.

The truth? The 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act required all members of Congress to participate in Social Security as of Jan. 1, 1984.

How many millions of people believe these “facts?” Too many, I’m afraid, simply want to believe them at a time when Congress is, often justifiably, under attack. But what happens to political debate in this country when so many people are basing their arguments and beliefs on completely untrue premises?

Clearly, before the advent of the Internet, newspapers, TV and radio media did not always get facts absolutely right. But they were usually accurate and when they were not, most would print a retraction. I’ve yet to see an email retraction of an Internet-based myth.

What can we do? Next time you get an email you want to forward, hesitate before you punch the “send” button. Check it out first. You will be contributing to the civil discourse that has helped make this country great.

Originally published 16 Oct 2011 on