Internet Telephone

If you are as old as I am, you remember a game originally played with cans tied together by string and then simply cupped hands called “Telephone.” The point of the games was simple: see how completely off base a story or quote becomes after it has been passed from one person to 10. Now, multiply that by 100s, 1000s, potentially even 100,000s. See the problem with speaking before you do your research?


There have been a lot of rumors surrounding Michael Jackson’s death of late, these include:

  • MJ was a closeted gay man whose eccentricities all stem from internalized homophobia and the “so much more homophobic [than white folks who make the laws and carry the bats] black community”
  • MJ’s original csa accuser made it all up and is now recanting
  • MJ is faking it for a comeback tour extravaganza (& no this isn’t just from Perez Hilton)
  • MJ’s mother and father have already begun a cut throat fight amongst themselves to control his legacy b/c they’re broke

The list goes on, getting more ridiculous over time, repetition, and number of readers. And like telephone, some of these stories have a kernel of truth in them but do not reflect anything resembling the actual truth.

So it is no wonder that Miss Jackson, Janet, looked positively angry when she spoke at the BET awards a few nights ago. It was not just that Black Exploitainment network had turned her brother’s death into a farse of a wake, or that her allegedly abusive father showed up on the red carpet to hawk his new project, though these all contributed. It was also, as she says in her own words, the way in which so many have begun to pick over his bones before the family has even had time to comprehend his loss and grieve.

So the next time you want to make up a story, or take the truth and bend it, think about this video clip. And the next time you want to play amatuer reporter without doing an ounce of fact checking, remember telephone and Miss Janet:


There have been other truly harmful and oppression ladden games of internet telephone going on lately. While some have been very brave in issuing apologies and giving correct information, others continue to disregard any truth but their own.

A good way to tell if you are playing internet telephone is:

  • check for documentation – is the information provided cited by a credible source (not another blog/s but news reports, data sets, personal phone calls or emails obtained by the person speaking, etc.)
  • is the discussion centered on the actual incident – if you are talking about an entire neighborhood but the original source material only sites the front steps of a single house, you have moved away from documented facts and are likely playing telephone
  • is the discussion centered on the injured party – if someone else is being centered either as savior or ally or replacing the original story with their own, that is only tangentially related, if at all, you are playing telephone
  • is the timeline you were told correct – if you are entering the conversation in the middle w/out having consulted the original discussion or you are starting from the place in the conversation your friends or other bloggers have pointed you to instead of from where the conversation actually started, you are playing telephone.
  • are the people you are talking to credible – if someone has a pattern of starting fights, threatening others, making up things about other people, or otherwise demeaning and disparaging people and your info comes from them, you are likely playing internet telephone. (Note – you may be playing internet telephone even if you are talking to people with no such history or for whom such may include conflict specifically b/c they were accurately defending themselves or others.)

I resent people who make authoritative posts about what blogging is and what it is not, and especially those who then outline how they believe in punishing those who deviate, so I won’t do that. What I will say is that many issues raised in the blogosphere have real consequences for people in the real world. Failing to engage in ethical blogging, ie refusing to play internet telephone, do your own research, or worse siding with people with consistent patterns of making things up and/or exaggerating things about other people in order to shut them down, can do unfixable damage to some of the most marginalized communities. We all screw up some times and taking responsibility for that is a brave and important step. Committing to doing your research and not posting or repeating information based on a friend of a friend’s say so, is another. (And I think it is time to stop saying sorry to people when you have done nothing wrong or when you were egged into doing something questionable by someone else. Take a minute to examine what you have said and/or done and bounce it off people from that group willing to help you navigate the conflict and be honest about whether you did something wrong or not, not just agree that you are a good person. Do not apologize for things you did not do but make sure you apologize for those you did. If we don’t start saying to people who automatically dismiss anyone who disagrees with them, calls them on their stuff, or otherwise refuses to engage them on the basis of their interactions vs. their identity, then none of us will get our needs met, none of us will be able to form lasting bonds across identities, and none of us will ultimately learn from our or others’ mistakes.)


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