In the new world of blogs and tweets and breaking-news bulletins flashing across billions of big, medium, and small screens, we are learning that one of the down sides of instant connection is that false news can in a flash go from being an off-hand comment to a globally recognized “fact.”(Consider the person falsely-accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber.) The hope, often vain, is that corrections will just as quickly catch up with the mistakes. There are also slower, longer-lasting false stories that keep reverberating around at least part of the web, like those about President Obama’s heritage. And then there are “urban legends” that are passed around not by conspiracy theorists, gullible web surfers, or gossip-column fans, but by leading journalists, policymakers, and even (gasp!) academics. Folktales of the policy elites.
Sociologist Gary Alan Fine and political scientist Barry O’Neill published a paper a few years ago in, appropriately, the Journal of American Folklore on what they call “policy legends”: stories describing social conditions that call for social and governmental action, stories that are endorsed by respected, influential people, stories that are false. Despite occasional debunking, these legends have remarkable staying power. The examples Fine and O’Neill analyze date back before the Internet and, morphing in various ways, live on and on.
(I learned about this study from O’Neill at, of all things, a conference on Darwinian theory, which sort of shows how news can travel in odd channels.)