On Internet Rumors

These last couple days, there’s been a thing going around on Facebook. Maybe you’ve seen it. Some anonymous poster’s friend’s relative is high-up in the Boy Scouts and has the inside scoop on why the BSA allowed gay leaders, knows that the church is going to leave BSA, and knows that it’s going to be over gay issues, not in the interest of gender fairness.

And with that description, you know it’s not true, right? Like, it’s as credible as those email forwards your uncle sends every election cycle (frankly, whether your uncle is liberal or conservative, because what really matters is, your uncle’s crazy, amirite?).

And yet, people are credulously sharing and believing it. So, as a public service, and in the interest of not getting email forwards or seeing these kinds of things on Facebook, a quick review of how to evaluate the plausibility of internet rumors: 

(1) It’s not true. Really. You heard it, unsourced, on the internet? There’s not a chance that there’s any credibility to it at all.

(Sorry, got ahead of myself.)

(1) Try Snopes. That takes care of 99% of what your crazy uncle sends.[fn1]

Of course, in the case of a narrow Mormon-related Facebook post, I’d be surprised if Snopes had any information.[fn2]

(2) Google the details. In this case, there are actual details to Google, including this:

They [the BSA] have lost their nonprofit status through litigation over discriminatory practices in several states due to not hiring homosexuals. They were also fighting in the courts in several other states for the same reason and the attorneys feared they will lose. Other lawsuits were being threatened in additional states.

So I Googled boys scouts lose state tax-exempt status. And I learned that, in fact, California threated to take away the BSA’s tax-exempt status. In 2013. It passed the state Senate, but doesn’t appear to have passed the Assembly, much less been signed by the governor.

Other than that, nothing shows up in the search results.

But what, you ask, if it’s just not newsworthy? or the liberal media is burying it? or that journalists are just incompetent? or something? The next step requires a little more access, so I’ve taken care of it for you:

(3) Look at a relevant database. I searched the Litigation and Dockets part of Bloomberg Law. The BSA is involved in a lot of litigation. But once I added tax and/or exempt to the search, only three and ten, respectively, hits came up. And none of those had to do with the BSA losing its tax-exempt status.[fn3]

Now, this isn’t necessarily a definitive answer. It’s certainly possible that the BSA lost tax-exempt status in some state and chose not to challenge the revocation in court. But, while possible, that doesn’t strike me as terribly plausible.

And other parts of the rumor are even less plausible. This, for example:

The attorneys also mentioned that the LDS church was facing the very same issues and were being forced to consolidate much of their businesses in SLC because they were losing or being threatened with losing their nonprofit status in many states due to discrimination.

That’s just stupid. The church doesn’t operate its businesses as tax-exempt. Essentially, tax-exempt entities that earn business income must pay taxes on that business income and, from what I understand, most tax-exempts don’t like to have to deal with the unrelated business income tax. As a result, most tax-exempt organizations—including the church—put their business endeavors in taxable corporate subsidiaries.

That is, the church’s businesses already aren’t tax-exempt; consolidating them in Salt Lake wouldn’t change that. At. All.

Of course, following these steps takes work and some underlying knowledge. Maybe you don’t want to take the time to run the Google searches before you share it. Is there any other way to determine whether or not it’s credible.

Of course. Back when I worked at BYU’s Writing Center, I’d occassionally teach internet research classes. And one of the important skills I taught was how to evaluate the credibility of internet sources.

So take a look at this:

My relative is a big-wig at Boys Scouts. We are talking very high up in the company. Prior to the announcement that the Boys Scouts will now be allowing gay leaders, the big-wigs at Boys Scouts had a meeting with their lawyers. The following occurred. No further information will be given as I do not want my relative to lose his job (this is all very confidential) and I am having someone else post this for me so that it hopefully protects him further. But I 100% trust that he was telling me the truth.

If you count, then, even if the post is based on something that actually in real life happened, at best we’re getting a third-hand account. So at best we’re playing a big game of telephone. So even if we don’t try to run down the details, the most charitable reading of the rumor tells us it’s not an accurate report, and that we shouldn’t share it further.

Look, the church may leave BSA. Or it may not. I really don’t know. All I know is that it takes almost no work to verify that a lot of the details are clearly wrong, and it takes even less to realize that the rumor has serious credibility problems.

[fn1] Of course, introducing your crazy uncle to Snopes is a mixed blessing. I did that for my email-forwarder, but he didn’t really get what it was, so he started to forward me his emails before he sent them out to everybody; I, essentially, served as his Snopes.

[fn2] Did a quick Snopes search, and it doesn’t look like it’s there. No surprise, really.

[fn3] Note that, per the Deseret News, the BSA is (or, at least was) facing a civil rights investigation in New York. But that’s unrelated to its tax-exempt status, so can we quit using “tax-exempt status” as shorthand for legal consequences we don’t understand? Pretty please?

Comments

  1. I was so outraged by this yesterday – some parts were just so patently false to ruin any sort of credibility and those who bought it and shared it really lack in critical thinking skills. I can believe that this comes from disaffected mos. When I called out BS on several parts, esp those I’d heard contradicted from sources in salt lake I was told, “well of course GAs would lie.”

    Sigh. Some people shouldn’t have access to share/post buttons.

  2. juliemariesmith says:

    Tax law to the rescue once again! Thank you.

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Here’s some fuel to pour on the fire:

    Last Sunday, in response to a question in our stake priesthood meeting regarding the relationship between the church and the BSA, the visiting General Authority (a member of the second quorum of the 70) indicated that, while he could not comment on if/when that relationship would be severed, he could offer the following from his firsthand participation on a relevant committee: a Church program to replace Scouting is “100% ready to go” and “has been for a number of years”.

  4. Precisely what Kristine said. Thanks for this rundown, Sam.

  5. Reminder: critical thinking is a learned skill that takes practice and effort and also everyone thinks they are magically born with it.

  6. I’ll tell you what the hardest part about that rumor to believe was: It was that there was going to be an equal program for the girls. I believe the church has a program ready to go for the boys. I doubt they’ve worried about the girls much.

    Also, FWIW, I have heard that some units have been told not to do Friends of Scouting until further notice.

  7. Xander Harris says:

    Source of rumor: Elder C. Deez Nuts.

  8. And there wasn’t a request for some kind of donation associated with the rumor? Whoever started it has no imagination.

  9. “Last Sunday, in response to a question in our stake priesthood meeting regarding the relationship between the church and the BSA, the visiting General Authority (a member of the second quorum of the 70) indicated that, while he could not comment on if/when that relationship would be severed, he could offer the following from his firsthand participation on a relevant committee: a Church program to replace Scouting is “100% ready to go” and “has been for a number of years”.”

    Yes, it’s called Jade Helm Scouts.

  10. The Other Clark says:

    I’m in the bishopric, and was told by the stake president yesterday to carry on and call individuals to the vacant scouting/cub positions, because whether the Church would or wouldn’t walk away wasn’t our concern. And something about completing the Nauvoo temple before the saints abandoned the city. Anyway, just another data point from the smoky Northwest.

  11. There is also the problem with #1 that many people have the vague feeling that Snopes is a left wing conspiracy since it seems to refute so many of their favorite email forwards, with some sort of elaborate funding behind the scenes going on. I can’t remember the story, but some of my reliable FB and email forwarders do not accept Snopes as a reliable source.

  12. My experience with posting a Snopes rebuttal has always been either the rumormonger’s silence or a retort that because it is a refutation, the people of Snopes are clearly deranged, biased, and/or simply misinformed. It has virtually never resulted in a conversation taking place.

    As for the fear of loss of tax exemption, that circles a similar drain. The fact that it has never happened, cannot happen under current constitutional laws and interpretations of laws going back over 100 years, and shouldn’t happen because 1st Amendment are not reasons to relax. The thing is, they argue, wicked people can always change those laws and then the Church will be up tax creek unless that Bishop over there marries those gays.

    And there has been *no point* to remarking on the breathtaking slippery slope that argument entails, since they brook no argument. Babylon will get us. Says so in the scriptures. The world is steeped in sin, steeper today than ever before. There are real identities tied up with those attitudes, and I’ve never been able to persuade anyone holding them otherwise. In spite of the fact that I’m talking about Mormons whose central doctrines revolve around improving the world through proselyting the Restoration, along with a force of 80,000+ now dedicated to exactly the thing they’re sure can’t happen.

  13. Sam, this is too easy! You should do some real work for a change.
    But seriously, good job.
    It worries me that there may be a sentence or phrase in that Facebook letter that is true or coincidentally turns out to be correct. And that we’ll get another round of posts telling us how wrong you were and how right they were.

  14. Great response, Sam!

  15. There’s no end to the number of major changes to LDS church programs that are and have been allegedly ready to implement for “a number of years.”

  16. There are lots of problems with the original Facebook letter, as you point out. However, I will make my regular comment whenever you talk about taxes (which is almost always?) which is that the tax world is a lot bigger than income tax. Property tax issues, for example, certainly affect the BSA (and churches) all the time in lots of places. A quick Google search will show it. Sales tax issues come up (are scout uniforms exempt? how about tents?)
    Most people most of the time saying “tax” are first thinking U.S. federal (or state) income tax, but if someone wants to come back with “tax issues are real” there is fuel to do so.

  17. it's a series of tubes says:

    There’s no end to the number of major changes to LDS church programs that are and have been allegedly ready to implement for “a number of years.”

    Fair enough – I was just passing along what I heard from the horses’s mouth.

  18. John Mansfield says:

    This tax obsession allows a nice showcase for magician-like misdirection:

    Did the California Supreme Court, in 2015, order state judges to not associate with the boy scouts? Yes, it did? Did the New York State attorney general’s office open an inquiry, in 2015, to determine whether the BSA has discriminated as an employer against gays. Yes, it did. Did someone on facebook write something unfounded about tax status? Apparently, so just forget what they write in the LA Times and the NY Times. No one is coming after the boy scouts in any official capacity regarding discrimination against homosexuals. That’s just homophobe paranoia.

    http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-0125-boy-scouts-judges-20150125-story.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/21/nyregion/new-york-investigates-whether-boy-scouts-employment-practices-discriminated-against-gays.html?_r=0

  19. People need to quit worrying about the Church losing its tax exempt status. If you have seen John Olivers’ recent expose on televangelists on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” you’ll understand that pretty much anything goes if you call yourself a “church.”

  20. I first saw this on Reddit, which due to the anonymous nature has even less credibility than Facebook. But that the part of this rumor that I loved the most, perhaps because I am a lawyer, was this:

    “They stated that the church was going to continue to fight, but when a certain line in the sand was crossed, the church’s attorneys had already written up a new revelation to help the church keep the nonprofit status. I couldn’t get any more information about what this new revelation was but basically it was enough to keep the church’s nonprofit status. My relative insinuated that the church was being forced by the government into another revelation like the ending of polygamy.”

    There’s something about the concept of Church lawyers drafting up revelations that just makes me laugh. This may be the plausible part!

  21. Thanks, everybody, for your comments. A couple quick responses:

    Chris, you’re absolutely right that I need to get back to work. Also, that non-federal income taxes are important. In case I wasn’t clear, I didn’t read the rumor to imply that the BSA had lost, or was at risk of losing, its federal tax exemption; I read it as applying purely to state exemptions (from income, property, and/or sales taxes, primarily). And it’s possible that BSA has lost its exemption in some state in an administrative proceeding, and hasn’t yet filed suit to challenge the revocation. But my Bloomberg Law search covered both state and federal courts, and was a search of dockets, not just finished litigation, so no complaint has been filed in such a state. So I find the idea that the BSA has lost state tax exemptions tremendously unlikely.

    John, I frankly don’t understand what on earth you’re talking about. My tax focus allowing for magician-like misdirection? The post is in response to a Facebook rumor that the BSA and the church have lost (and/or are at risk of losing) state tax exemptions as a result of their views on and actions toward gays and lesbians. Full stop.

    In fact, though, if you read my third footnote, you’d have noticed that I in fact mentioned that there was a civil rights investigation of the BSA in New York. So if I’m trying to misdirect, I’m doing a pretty crappy job of it.

    Because you seem to like to misread my posts, I’m going to be blunt and slightly rude: please actually read my posts, not the imagined ideological posts you want to argue against. k?

  22. I am pretty sure I saw this story on John Dehlin’s FB page in the last day or two. I assume that is what is being referred to, though it is a broader trend, too. What amazes me is that Mr Dehlin claims to be all about intellectual rigour, fact checking and the like…yet he is happy to post unattributed (perhaps even unprovable/unknowable) stories and comments that seem to simply be about dragging the Church’s name as deep as possible through the gutter. And he gets so much support (at least based on the comments)!
    I suppose it just reinforces the tendency we have for cognitive/analytical bias.

  23. Doesn’t matter. My kids will continue to do Scouting.

  24. tubes…ga’s name or it didnt happen :) :)

  25. Sam, I agree that I think it very unlikely that “the BSA has lost state tax exemptions” on a systematic or state-wide basis, or in any way connected to gay scouts or scout leaders. On the other hand, the BSA and other generally tax-exempt organizations, including churches, face issues related to property tax and sales tax all the time, with regard to specific properties, products, and uses. Such issues seldom show up in the kind of searches you did, and (in my opinion, at least) are irrelevant to your OP. My fear is that somebody will bring up one of those disputes as a way to say “see, taxes really are at issue.” And therefore I like to be specific, that no, those kinds of disputes, which have been and will be forever, are simply irrelevant.
    (One or two of the comments above suggest that my fear is not irrational.)

  26. Every time issues like this come up I am left wondering if any other churches but ours have all of their USA finances centralized. I know in churches with congregational structures finances are all local. The Roman Catholic Church finances are regionally based. The very fact that for the LDS there is one big money pot makes us an easy target for any number of things. We justify centralization on being a “house of order” but there are other ways of achieving that, especially in the 21st century. Back in the local budget days it always bugged me that we were limited in how we could raise funds because Kirton & McConkie feared the loss of our tax status, but every other church in town weren’t hobbled by such limits.

  27. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.

  28. Maybe we ought to start a Save Ferris fund to send over a private nurse so his pluck can be restored?

  29. Goes to show that good reasoning skills aren’t a function of being in or out of a religion, being in or out of a political group, etc. I don’t know why John would post this … surely he’s got to be held to a *slightly* higher standard than others by the nature of his PhD? It really undermines his credibility in a lot of eyes, I think, in spite of him saying that he has “no idea” if it is true.

  30. If memory serves, I believe the Church has been toying around with alternatives to Scouting for years (going back to the 1990’s). The entire thread read like a poory written wanna-be souce. There might be some merit. Some. But it’s so mixed up in hyperbole and disaffected-Mormon code-words that as soon as I read it, I knew that it was BS.

    If the Church does leave Scouting (which I hope it does not), it would feel like both a very petty gesture for being “overlooked” and extremely reactionary, especially given the individual charter clause in the BSA ruling.

  31. it's a series of tubes says:

    tubes…ga’s name or it didnt happen :) :)

    Foster :)

  32. fuddyduddy says:

    @it’s a series of tubes:

    Yes, the church has indeed had another program 100% ready to go for several years. They hid it in the best possible place: On lds.org. See here:

    https://www.lds.org/youth/activities

    I was at a regional YM leaders training meeting a few years ago when the general YM president said that the church had been working for some time on a major new initiative that would improve youth activity nights and promote a more coherent global program. He said we’d see it in a few months. A few months later, the link I’ve given above was launched.

    Frankly, I don’t find it impressive. But there it is.

  33. The Church’s announcement today puts this rumor to rest.