When I was in college, one of the hardest parts of any course was the inevitable research paper. Often I danced my way through the process of choosing the topic, finding the material and the collaborating statements, and putting quotes on note-cards. Usually, on the night before the paper was due, I brewed a big pot of coffee and hobbled the note-card information and pages together into one unified whole to turn in the next day. During this agonizing process I frequently discovered my head on the table, jerked myself awake, drank more coffee, and got back on track.

Those papers seemed a cruel assignment to give an already overtaxed full-time student. At the time I considered it a senseless form of torture. If I learned anything from the exercise at all it was that it would have been so much easier not to wait until the last minute before writing the actual paper. It's only lately that I'm beginning to understand the real reason for that requirement. It was simply to get students used to doing independent research.

I am spending a lot of time these days on Facebook and Twitter, making friends, getting into the mix, finding patterns. And one of the patterns I am finding is that a bunch of well-meaning, lovely people latch onto some political or existential video made by someone they don't know and know nothing about, like what they seem to be hearing and seeing, and pass it on as truth. If you ask anyone in this long chain of passing-it-on who the video-maker actually is, what his agenda might be, what he hopes to accomplish, etc., you get a blank stare. Usually these kinds of videos say something like, "You can't believe anything anyone tells you these days so you better start believing me." They hint there is some ominous conspiracy the video-maker has stumbled across for which he might be persecuted if found out, putting his life in danger—which is why he can't afford to leave his name or other means of authentication.

This sounds so right to people these days that they seem willing to swallow it without hesitation. In an age where many news-bloggers bend the truth at will, where the rich and powerful fund social movements and constitutional amendments on the sly, where the line between tabloid and competent news source has blurred and even disappeared, where the only thing we seem to be able to trust is WikiLeaks, most of us are ripe for the plucking.

My take is that anyone can believe anything they want to. Fine with me. But before they pass it downstream as truth they need to do some personal, hands-on research, finding at least five qualified, respected and knowledgeable professionals who agree with the opinions uttered in the video, finding trustworthy independent sources who can shine light on the subject from various angles, either from alternative media in this country or abroad—and verify, verify, verify. For those of us who want to become part of the chain of passing-it-on, that must be the bottom line. Let the video-maker or blogger earn our stamp of approval before we become unwitting parts of some viral propaganda machine we know nothing about.

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    Kris Heywood lives and writes in a small mountain town of Oregon.