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Snookered by a Famous Commencement Speech

Beware the Wild West of the Internet, where not everything you read is true.

As we are in the heart of commencement season, I am reminded of how I got snookered--big time--14 years ago.

As publisher and editor of a newspaper in Oswego, N.Y., I wrote two weekly columns.

Always on the lookout for good ideas, I decided to use as the basis for one an e-mail I received from a close journalist friend. It was said to be the commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997 by well-known novelist Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five.

I was smitten by the practical and irreverent tone of the message. In it, Vonnegut is alleged to have said: “Do one thing every day that scares you. Sing. Floss. Don’t waste your time on jealousy….”

It turns out the information was not from a commencement address by Vonnegut, but from a piece written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. The columnist was not a commencement speaker.

She was thrashing about for a column idea and, while walking on the beach, she saw a woman who was burning in the hot sun. “That woman should be using sunscreen,” she thought, and that’s how the idea for a practical-advice column blossomed.

Schmich wrote her column June 1, four days before MIT’s commencement. In it, Schmich fantasized about giving a commencement address. “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97,” the imaginary speech began, “wear sunscreen.”

The column soon blanketed the Internet, mislabeled along the way as an address given at MIT by Vonnegut. Those who received it were impressed and passed it on, further perpetuating the misinformation.

That’s basically how it got to me. My journalist friend liked it and sent it to me. Instead of checking it out further, I assumed (there’s that deadly word) my friend had verified that it was, indeed, Vonnegut’s words.

The press office at MIT fielded dozens of requests for copies of the commencement speech. Actually, it was Kofi Annan, then-Secretary General of the United Nations, who delivered the MIT commencement address on June 5, 1997. He spoke, at some length, about the importance of the U.N. He did not exhort the MIT grads to wear sunscreen, floss or do any of the other sensible things attributed to Vonnegut.

Schmich first learned of her column’s double life about two months after she had written it, when a reader alerted her, just as several readers mercifully alerted me to the Internet hoax.

Schmich began tracking down Vonnegut, finally locating him at his summer home on Long Island.

Vonnegut said he was aware of the situation because his lawyer and friends had called him. Vonnegut, a gracious man, told her he was sorry if it had caused her any discomfort.

Later, Vonnegut told The New York Times that “what she wrote was funny and wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.”

He also said that cyberspace is “spooky,” populated by people who will believe anything they are told. Vonnegut died in 2007.

The Vonnegut experience was a good teacher and reminds all of us that anyone can write anything on the Internet. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s true.

In the intervening 14 years, I have received countless similar pass-along works, which, thanks to the Vonnegut episode, sent me into research mode. In most instances, the “amazing” information was wrong, erroneously attributed or otherwise flawed.

David Emery, who studies urban legends and folklore, says there are deeper phenomena underlying the lawlessness and gullibility of Internet users.

What Marshall McLuhan said of television is no less true of the Internet, Emery said: The medium is the message.

New technologies are not simply changing the way information is transmitted; they are changing our perception of reality, Emery claims.

Before we pass along information as gospel, we have a responsibility to check and verify the accuracy of material we receive, especially when it comes unsolicited on the Internet.

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