The demonization of Joe Rehyansky

Sometimes I question whether the internet’s upsides — its ability to disseminate information, facilitate collaboration, and connect people across continents — are outweighed by its downsides.  It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot recently as I’ve watched an array of liberal bloggers demonize an Army veteran, Joe Rehyansky, for something he didn’t actually say.

Last week, The Daily Caller published an article by Rehyansky entitled, “Don’t hint, don’t wink: an immodest proposal.”  In the article, Rehyansky argues (sarcastically) that lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the US military but gay men should not. He concludes with a sarcastic comment (since removed) saying that if lesbians were allowed in the military, male GIs would be able to turn them straight — or, in Rehyansky’s words, “convert them into the mainstream.”

Liberal bloggers took this sentence to mean that Rehyansky is in favor of raping lesbians in order to turn them straight.  What followed was a barrage of articles — written by bloggers based in at least six different countries — condemning Rehyansky for “advocating rape.”

Most readers took the bloggers’ biased articles at face value.  Many readers tweeted about Joe’s article, emailed it to friends, and recommended it on Facebook.  Within days, the dozens of articles about Rehyansky’s op-ed had garnered tens of thousands of hits and several thousand nasty comments.

The incident is scary for a number of reasons.  First, it illustrates the internet’s ability to disseminate false information — and the willingness of bloggers to fan the flames.

Some commentators believe that blogs will someday replace traditional media outlets.  Hopefully they’re wrong because, as the Rehyansky debacle highlights, bloggers hold themselves to very low ethical and journalistic standards.  Most will do whatever it takes to maximize hits.  And what maximizes hits, unfortunately, isn’t quality journalism; it’s sensationalism.

But even scarier is the way readers reacted to the bloggers’ stories about Rehyansky.  Judging by the articles’ comment boards, the overwhelming majority of the people who read the stories took them at face value.

I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  As others have noted, the internet makes it possible for people to tune out opposing viewpoints by only visiting sites that reinforce their own views.  In other words, the web nurtures closed-mindedness and gullibility.

Bloggers aren’t immune from the “echo chamber” effect either.  A good illustration of this phenomenon is this unintentionally funny Daily Kos article attacking Republicans for flocking to biased news sources. The Daily Kos, of course, is the epitome of a biased news source.  That bias seems to have taken a toll on the anonymous author, who, after criticizing Republicans for being out of touch with reality, explained the unpopularity of the Democrats’ health care law this way: “It was not that people did not want HCR, it was that they wanted more.”

In a world where the journalists are biased and the readers are inclined to accept whatever the journalists tell them, rumors and distortions can spread at incredible speeds.  This is the world we now live in.  Just ask Joe Rehyansky.

Peter Tucci is an editor at The Daily Caller.