2012-03-18 The word as virus: Myth-making in the syndication age

My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host ... the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.
- William Seward Burroughs, The Adding Machine

Anyone who has ever played the child's game of "Telephone" -- also called "Chinese Whispers" -- knows how readily the "grapevine" breeds distortion, as mistakes and deliberate misstatements can take on lives of their own. Often the mainstream news media acts as an adult version of this exercise in group error. In the system of mass news dissemination via major syndication agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), inaccuracies eventually become accepted "fact," and mistake morphs into meme and myth. A sole news service like AP is like "Telephone" on steroids, as it can easily distribute a single falsehood to more than 15,000 subscribers who then accept it as fact. Herein danger lies; for, in these days of trial by media, one person's fate and freedom may depend on a question as to which myth has more traction.

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