“There are two modes of establishing our reputation: to be praised by honest men, and to be abused by rogues. It is best, however, to secure the former, because it will invariably be accompanied by the latter.”
-- Charles Caleb Colton, Anglican clergyman (1780-1832)
Reputation and trust are precious and precarious things. They are built over a lifetime, and yet they can be squandered (or stolen) in an instant. This has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few days as I have dealt with a rather unusual case of identity theft.
Hopefully, none of you are going to encounter my cyberspace imposter or his/her work firsthand. But just in case, I wanted to take a moment to explain what has happened, set the record straight, and reassure everyone that I haven’t completely lost my mind!
This situation first came to my attention back in December. Just before the beginning of Christmas break, I began to receive “fan mail” (for lack of a better term) on my university e-mail account. These people kept raving about this online political essay I had supposedly written and published, and that was now being circulated via forwarded emails. Some called me courageous. Others hailed me as a visionary. A few suggested that I was predestined to play a pivotal role in the apocalyptic events foretold in the Book of Revelation. (I’m not kidding...) Now over the past eleven years I have published a book and several articles in academic journals, and I have to admit I never even attracted one groupie. So with my curiosity very much piqued, I began searching the internet for the mysterious article.
I suppose it was inevitable that I was not going to like what I found. There, prominently displayed on a rather politically extreme website, was an essay that likened President Barack Obama to . . . Adolph Hitler. Underneath the title was the inscription “by Tim Wood.” Uh-oh.
I was not pleased. However, even though my parents always told me I was special, a quick internet search will reveal that I am not, in fact, the world’s only Tim Wood. So I ignored it. Until recently, that is, when the forwarded version of this article had mutated into a form which included the rather unambiguous phrase “Professor of History and Political Science, Southwest Baptist University, Bolivar, MO.” The writer of this message also helpfully appended my office phone number and e-mail address.
I would be lying if I said I was not upset. Even above and beyond the fact that the comparison is utterly ridiculous (anyone who believes that truly has no understanding of the depths of evil plumbed by the Nazi regime), it was now personal. Who has the right to speak for me like that? How dare they hide behind my name! What if my colleagues -- or my friends and family – read this and believed it??? And it still surprises me how much we all (and I include myself in this) take at face value off the internet. In history, scholars are trained to always analyze their sources. Always, in the back of their minds, historians must be aware that the historical documents they are working with may contain errors, lies, omissions, and distortions. Their sources may even turn out to be wholesale forgeries.
To navigate those potential pitfalls, historians check facts and look for other documents that conform (or contradict) the information found in our source. We seek to identify the author and understand his or her motives for writing. We try to understand the larger historical and cultural context surrounding a document. By doing our homework, we’re better able to judge when something or someone deserves to be “taken at their word.”
This episode has taught me that these skills have an important place even outside this history classroom. All of us know how much dishonesty there is in the world around us, yet how quickly we forget that just before we hit the “forward” button. For me, this has been a warning against being intellectually lazy and has reminded me of the importance of verifying information before passing it on to others. (Along the way, I’ve also learned that websites such as www.snopes.com and www.truthorfiction.com are excellent tools for investigating online hoaxes.)
At any rate, I’m now in the process of cleaning this mess up, and am optimistic that it will soon be straightened out. And if any of you encounter any online rantings and ravings that claim to be by me, don’t necessarily believe it. Things are not always what they seem.
Timothy L. Wood, Ph.D.