The Suspension of Belief

Friday, October 20, 2006

"Is the U.S. harvesting organs from Iraqis?" "Did the U.S. create Osama bin Laden?" "Was Saddam's capture faked?"

Those are the kinds of questions that keep Todd Leventhal busy. He's the State Department's sole counter-misinformation officer. He tracks conspiracy theories and urban legends, dissecting the inaccuracies and identifying the origins of questionable information that reflects poorly on the nation and its government.

Go to the State Department's "Identifying Misinformation" Web site ( ), and you'll find Leventhal's research.

The vast array of information posted there includes a brief mention of the legend of the woman who tried drying her dog by microwave oven and an exhaustively researched report -- nearly 6,000 words -- on rumors of Americans kidnapping children for organ and cornea transplants.

Besides the glut of Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy theories, counter-misinformation work takes on various false rumors.

A sampling: AIDS was invented in a Pentagon laboratory; the author of an 1830 Islam-bashing book is President Bush's grandfather (although he was the cousin of Bush's great-great-great grandfather). It works over Hugo Chavez's oft-repeated claims that the United States plans to invade Venezuela (he has confused it with a Spanish military war game that has no U.S. involvement, the State Department says).

Many of the entries' titles are in question form, and "no" is almost always the answer.

"Clearly, they've been putting a lot of time and effort into it," said Barbara Mikkelson, one of the founders of, a Web site that tracks urban legends and assigns each a verdict of true, false or something in between.

"It's probably good thinking on the government's part, she said. "Generally, it is better to combat rumors than to let them lie. The best way to combat misinformation is with information."

But for all the work, the State Department doesn't do much to promote the results, at least in the United States. The agency did agree, though, to answer a series of questions by e-mail. Responses were attributed to "a State Department official."

The official said the State Department doesn't promote its counter-misinformation work in the United States because, by law, work in the International Information Programs Bureau is directed toward foreign audiences.

What's the budget for counter-misinformation work? The diffuse nature of the work, the official said, "makes it difficult to assign an exact figure."

How does counter-misinformation work? When U.S. embassies become concerned about misinformation gaining credence in their region of the world, the official said, they contact Leventhal.

"Mr. Leventhal leads the effort to collect information on 'myth busting,' drawing on the expertise of other offices to craft a response." Embassy officials then decide how best to use Leventhal's research to counteract the bad information.

-- Hartford Courant

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