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A Web Hoax, Transformed

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"SAVE NPR and PBS," reads an e-mail petition being circulated by MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group. "Really. Check the footnotes if you don't believe us."

The group was one of dozens to solicit signatures after a House committee voted to cut federal support of National Public Radio and television shows like "Sesame Street." But many found they had to first persuade a jaded Internet citizenry that their petitions were authentic.

That was necessary because, according to folklorists of the online world, two students at the University of Northern Colorado had sent out a similar "Save NPR/PBS" petition way back in 1995, shortly after Republican legislators began a push to eliminate public broadcasting.

What happened next was in some ways characteristic of what happens to information on the Internet: the students' e-mail campaign soon got out of hand. The petition kept circulating, this time as a hoax, long after the threat to public radio and television had disappeared.

Then, in a reminder of the slippery distinction between digital fact and fiction, current events turned the e-mail's oft-debunked but never killed message into reality. In a classically surreal Internet moment, the new e-mail was taken for the bogus old one, and the old one, for many years a hoax, suddenly became true.

The e-mail's metamorphosis has caused confusion among those long used to seeing "Save NPR/PBS" in an inbox subject line and deleting the message. It also highlights the ongoing clash between the credulous and the skeptical on the Internet.

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