Friday, December 14, 2012

ACLU: When More Than Facts Are Needed

My auntie sent an email this week that was hard-to-forget or "sticky". But utterly false. This article explores the characteristics of a sticky message and how to refute inaccurate messages.

The Urban Legend: ACLU proposes end to prayer in military

Auntie forwarded an email claiming that “the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] has filed a suit to end prayer from the military completely. They’re making great progress. The Navy Chaplains can no longer mention Jesus’ name in prayer thanks to the ACLU and others.”

The provocative statement was then followed by a picture of a military funeral procession that implied that a soldier would be sent to his final resting place without a benediction.

The recipients were then asked to forward to all the people in their address book to further the spread of misinformation.

The Facts: Utter Lunacy

The nonpartisan PolitiFact rated the accusation as "Pants on Fire" (no basis in fact). As part of its in-depth analysis, PolitiFact contacted the U.S. military. "That’s utter lunacy," said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman. "I’m not aware of any notification from the ACLU toward that end." [1]

The prayer story first surfaced a few years ago. Despite repeated updates on its falsehoods, it continues. Why do urban legends that are untrue live on, while the truth sits meekly on a web page waiting for those to seek it out?

What Makes A Message Sticky?

In their book, "Made To Stick", the authors --- Stanford professor Chip Heath and his brother Dan Heath a senior fellow at Duke University  --- reviewed urban legends and other messages to determine what makes them "sticky". [2] In the case of the military prayer urban legend, it is simple, emotional, and credible (the target recipients are likely to think of the ACLU as un-American bogeyman).

How To Rebut An Urban Legend

The Heath Brothers advise to do more than a standard fact-based rebuttal when trying to correct a false story. It is necessary to be just as emotionally compelling, surprising and story-based.

Find Common Ground

As a first step, putting a personal face on the broad liberties that the ACLU defends would make it easier for people to connect. Despite early controversy, many of the changes that the ACLU championed have directly benefited my family. A reply to auntie's email could take that into account.

Make It Personal. Make It Surprising.

Uncle W you may be surprised to learn that the ACLU protects the right of people to preach their religion in public places and go door-to-door to spread their religious messages.

My Hispanic cousins you may be surprised to learn that The ACLU was a leader in fighting racism.

For all the women in the family who have worked hard and deserve a fair deal, you may be surprised to learn that the ACLU continues to be a leader for the rights for women. It won the first Supreme Court case that ruled that equal protection prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Those of you who will remain unnamed to protect your privacy may be surprised to learn that the ACLU's Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology promotes "responsible uses of technology that enhance privacy protection", and opposes uses "that undermine our freedoms and move us closer to a surveillance society".

Tell The True Story

Now that the recipients can see how the ACLU supports many of the same causes, it is appropriate to rebut the original email.

Regarding the topic of auntie's email, here is the back story. The ACLU was approached by cadets at the Naval Academy in 2008. The cadets wanted to abolish the tradition of daily prayer at weekday lunch where attendance is mandatory. [3]

The ACLU urged the Naval Academy to end the practice since "The government should not be in the business of compelling religious observance" said the ACLU, "particularly in military academies, where students can feel coerced by senior students and officials and risk the loss of leadership opportunities for following their conscience."

Share An Analogy

Those of us who have felt compelled to buy Girl Scout cookies for the boss's kids, join the softball team or support the company's charities knows that it is awkward to feel unwanted social pressure at work.

There was no request by the ACLU to stop voluntary religious activities. "Members of the military have a right to pray or not pray as they personally see fit," said the ACLU "And that right is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is one of the fundamental rights they put their lives on the line to defend in service to their country,"

Point Them To More Information

Should you want to learn more about how the ACLU has been a tireless advocate of religious rights in the public sphere, check out the ACLU's website. [4] You may be surprised to learn that the ACLU has been using the law for nearly a century to move us ever closer to the democratic ideal that the founders envisioned.

Arm Your Network with Your Sticky Message

The originators of the propaganda use social network to spread their message. A trusted source like my auntie is more likely to be believed then a blind email. And the next person in the chain expands to their network increasing the breadth of distribution quickly.

To enhance its public image and correct misinformation, the ACLU may want to prepare talking points so specific accusations can be easily and effectively discussed by recipients of the propaganda.


1. PolitiFact's analysis of the Navy chaplain and prayer hoax. Read more at PolitiFact >>
2. Chapter 1 of the  Heath Brothers Made to Stick book that discusses urban legends and other sticky messages. Read more at their website >>
3. ACLU's position on Naval Academy lunchtime prayer Read more at the ACLU website >>
4. ACLU website explaining their defense of religious freedom. Read more at the ACLU website >>

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