Broken Telephone

For those who are not familiar, broken telephone, also called Chinese Whispers1, is a game in which one person whispers a message to another and the message gets passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group.

Errors typically accumulate in the retellings so that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from the one uttered by the first.


It's human nature; we're imperfect. But there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's what makes us beautiful. It's why we invent and play games like broken telephone.

But now everyone--you and me included--is playing a very grown-up game of broken telephone. And we play it every day. In this adult version of the game, the whispers can be dangerous and the game is much bigger.

We can whisper something to anyone anywhere on the planet and they can then whisper that message to someone else, anywhere else on the planet.

By participating in the social web and using modern communication tools--cell phones, text messages, social media platforms--we're all participating in a global game of broken telephone, transmitting messages from one person to the next at the speed of light.

But what happens to our message as it gets transmitted? What happens when we retell something we've heard and then people start whispering our version of the story to others around the web, emailing it, tweeting it, and texting it?

What makes this adult version of of the game dangerous?

To find out, let's first start with a little history.

How Disinformation Killed my Grandfather

Cigarettes are a classic example of how false information can be dangerous. Many of us can relate to this particular example because it happened recently enough in history that our parents (or ourselves, if we're old enough) had first-hand experience with mass-exposure to false information that was propagated for financial gain.

There was a time when cigarettes were advertised as being good and healthy for you, a time when doctors would come on to the television and tell you what brand of cigarettes they smoked.

There was a time in very recent history when doctors would tell you that cigarettes were perfectly safe, even for moms and babies.


Today that just sounds ignorant and stupid.

But why? Why does that sound ignorant and stupid now? What makes us so much different than the people living fifty years ago? What reason did those people have to question the doctors? What reason did they have to doubt the people who appeared to know more than they did?

That's just it. They didn't have any good reason to doubt them.

The difference between fifty years ago and today is that now so many of us know the truth. Now so many of us have heard stories or have family members, as I do, who have died of cigarette-related diseases.

Now the truth about cigarettes is louder than any amount of false information and now even the people who continue to smoke cigarettes accept the reality of that truth.

How History is Repeating Itself

In 1953, members of the tobacco industry hired the firm Hill & Knowlton to help counteract findings that suggested cigarette smoking led to lung cancer.2

Just think about that: the tobacco industry was openly and legally paying a business to spread false information that would guarantee more sales of cigarettes to people would later die from lung cancer, like my grandfather did when I was growing up.

But that's all behind us now, right? We live in a more informed and more civilized society and the truth is everywhere, right? With all that we know, we couldn't possibly let stuff like that happen again, right?


In 2009, members of ANGA (America's Natural Gas Alliance), a lobbying organization for the gas industry, spread $80 million in funds across several agencies, including Hill & Knowlton (yes, the same firm hired to spread false information about cigarettes in the 50s), to try and influence decisions on the process of gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing.3

But here's what we know: Gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing (also known as 'fracking') release toxins into the local water supply that have known adverse health effects. These include neurological, pulmonary, gastroenterological, dermatological, immunological, hematological, endocrinological, reproductive, and genetic illnesses and abnormalities.4

I can't even pronounce all of those, but I bet they're not good for me.

Environment-related cancers can take 15 to 30 years to develop, so many of the negative side-effects won't even be seen until it's too late, just like the negative side-effects for cigarettes.

But you have nothing to worry about, right? You don't hear much about fracking so it probably won't effect you, right?

If you think you're safe, check Fracking Across the United States to see if your water supply (which comes from all directions) may be tainted and slowly killing you and your family (and certainly poisoning the water supply for future generations).

(By the way, it has also been found that Hill & Knowlton employees modify Wikipedia articles, so beware of the links I reference in this essay.)


Companies with a financial interest in spreading false information are still paying big money to ensure that such information remains the status quo and they'll continue doing so as long as it's more profitable than allowing the truth to become the norm.

Blatant lies by 'industry experts' who are paid to say what they're told to say? Lies and false information being openly touted as truth? It's still happening today. And with the Internet and social media, it's happening faster than ever.

And we might be helping.

Whispering to Millions at the Speed of Light

Lies outpace the truth whenever those lies have more backing them than the truth. Today, in a world driven largely by financial interest, there is a lot of money supporting false information.

The people in charge of spreading that false information (who may not even be aware the information they're tasked with spreading is false) recognize that you are their greatest asset. They recognize that you are their greatest communication tool.

What do we know about spreading information (false or otherwise) to large groups of people? We know that sensationalism is king, that if something is shocking, or affects us emotionally in some way, we're far more likely to share it with others.

We are incredibly emotional creatures. We release emotion by expressing and sharing it with whoever will listen. If we're not careful, what we share can stray from the truth. This is most likely to happen with things that make us angry or upset.

Take for example the recent news that two US Marine Harrier jets dropped bombs onto the heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

On Twitter, two of the people I'm following, Ross Hill and Anne Wu, tweeted a link to the news article along with their own sub-140-character summary (i.e., a whisper in the global game of broken telephone):



Ross Hill tweeted, "USA actually bombed Australia's Great Barrier Reef this week" and Anne Wu said, "the coral reefs are dying yet the US is still bombing them."

In both cases, it sounds pretty bad, right? It makes you angry that the worlds largest military is doing something as blatantly stupid as dropping bombs on a harmless reef in the ocean. Damn the military!

But hold on. Let's check our facts, shall we?

If you read the article, you'll discover that what actually happened was a training mishap:

US Navy Commander William Marks, of the 7th Fleet Public Affairs, said the jets had planned to drop the bombs on a range on Townshend Island, but that was foiled when the range was not clear.

After several attempts, the jets were running low on fuel and could not land with the bombs they were carrying.

So they dropped the bombs because it would've been too dangerous to land on the aircraft carrier with the bombs still attached. OK, that's understandable. But the bombs exploded in the ocean and destroyed precious coral reef, right?

He said each bomb was jettisoned in a "safe, unarmed state and did not explode".

OK, so nobody "actually bombed" anything and nobody "is still bombing them". There was no explosion and it's unlikely that any reef was harmed at all.

Sure, leaving the bombs in the ocean will certainly be harmful to sea life, as they would corrode and leak harmful chemicals into the ocean over time. But the military is not doing anything about that either, right?

The US Navy is considering how to recover the bombs, which were dropped in a "deep channel" about 16 nautical miles south of Bell Cay, off the Capricorn Coast between Mackay and Rockhampton.


"The safety of personnel and the environment are our top priorities," Commander Marks said.

I'm not picking on Ross or Anne here at all. I just happened to see their tweets and I just happened to click through to the article to read what actually happened. (It seemed too unbelievable to me that the bombing was intentional.)

Their tweets led me to these thoughts on disinformation and helped me link the old game of broken telephone with something that's happening daily in modern adult life. They helped me recognize just how easy it is to spread false or misleading information when the message we're sharing is something sensational.

What led me to take this whole thing more seriously and write this essay was what happened next.

A few days after I saw Ross and Anne's tweets, I happened to see that the WikiLeaks Twitter account had also tweeted about this 'bombing' incident:


The WikiLeaks tweet reads, "US fighter jets bomb Australia's great barrier reef."

The BBC article, linked in WikiLeaks tweet, is different than the one that Ross and Anne shared, so I thought that maybe some new information had surfaced that proved the military was intentionally bombing the reef (WikiLeaks is, after all, known for leaking information).

Let's read and find out. The BBC article is short; it's only three paragraphs. Here's the second paragraph:

The two planes jettisoned four bombs in more than 50m (165 ft) of water, away from coral, to minimise damage to the World Heritage Site, the US navy said.

It's almost laughable how accurately the opposite message is being conveyed by a simple tweet. Except it's not laughable, because the WikiLeaks Twitter account has 1.9 million followers and 185 people retweeted that misleading message.

If each of those people who retweeted the message only had 100 followers (which is likely far below the real average), that's an additional 18,500 people who saw WikiLeak's tweet just from those retweets, an additional 18,500 people who heard a whisper because 185 people thought the message was worthy of sharing, a message that was quite different from the truth.

The article linked in the tweet by WikiLeaks had three paragraphs, a grand total of 74 words. How many of those 185 people who retweeted and shared the WikiLeaks message actually clicked on the link and verified the facts for themselves?

I'm sure neither Ross or Anne meant any harm by their tweets and I doubt that any of the 185 people who retweeted WikiLeaks meant any harm either. I also doubt any real harm was caused (the military can probably handle a little criticism).

However, Ross has 5,679 Twitter followers and Anne has 717; that's potentially 6,396 ears they whispered their misleading messages into. That's not even mentioning the 1.9 million WikiLeaks followers or the exponential effect of the people who retweeted WikiLeaks.

Whether any harm was done in this particular case is beyond the point. The point is that we're all participating in a global game of broken telephone and that we're all, myself included, responsible for what we share.

We need to be more careful.

Share Responsibly or Don't Share at All

What if the Internet was around when cigarettes were being marketed as 'good for you'? How many funny or sensational tweets containing cigarette-promoting ideas would've been retweeted, unknowingly contributing to the future death of millions?


We are the media now and that makes each one of us a media transmitters. Messages spread with our help. If someone in a game of broken telephone refused to pass along a message until they were certain they had it right, the truth would have a greater chance at survival.

Only we can stop the perpetuation of fabricated information. Unless we all start accepting this responsibility we risk assisting those who are pushing misinformation for their own agenda.

If you're going to share something, please, check the facts.

Recognize the power you hold in your hands as you communicate and share online. Recognize that when you share things today you can reach billions of people, not just those in your immediate vicinity or those who you know, but people all over the planet.

When in doubt, do what I do and leave it out. It's far better to share silence than to risk sharing false messages that could harm people.

If you don't know the facts, share questions instead of sensational assumptions. My dad always used to say, "when you assume, you make an 'Ass' out of 'U' and 'Me'."

Assume nothing. Reject sensational attention-seeking. The truth will always be more durable and long-lasting than hollow sensationalism.

Share the truth. Fix the broken telephone.

Write a Comment



  1. Firstly, I loved how I could listen to this essay. It’s late at night as I’m listening, so it’s appreciated. I hope you consider an audio-style alternative again with longer essays.

    Secondly, past the harm of people who share, the sources themselves get influenced by the sharing. Journalists are all over twitter, and obsessed with the latest sensationalism. I don’t even know where to fact-check anymore.

    I prescribed myself no news (or Twitter, but that may not work for everyone) and only very personal sharing (an email to a single person). It saves time, reduces your news-bias, and gives you less anxiety. If it’s really important, it will reach you.

    Thanks for the ideas. This is a very important topic.

    • You’re welcome, Radhika! I’m glad you enjoyed the spoken essay. I often find myself wishing I could “read” long essays on the web that way.

      Great point on the sources themselves getting influenced by the sharing. As more and more of the world is connected, our sources of knowledge begin to reflect common opinion and common knowledge. We’re all becoming involuntary journalists in a way,

      I also avoid the news as much as possible and often hear about ‘big’ events by word-of-mouth (usually in-person, but sometimes via Twitter). On Twitter, I try not to follow any accounts that simply re-share news and I’m very selective with who I follow on Twitter (if they simply re-share a lot of mainstream media articles, I unfollow).

      Whenever I share something on Twitter, I always try to copy and paste my favorite quote from the article and turn that into my tweet (to help show that I’ve read it, but more to add value to the web by showing something I liked in the article).

  2. I thought you were going to talk about the nonsensical and damaging marketing lies they’ve been telling about “food” products for the past 50 years. Or the drugs to treat the symptoms created by all those food products (or “diseases” as they keep making up new names for. They’re just symptoms of bad diet, though).

    But Fracking is a good one that more people should pay attention to, as well.

    But it makes it so hard to keep up with the Kardashians if you have all this knowledge and stuff to keep track of too!

    • There are endless things I could’ve talked about, but I just happened to see part of a documentary on fracking that made me realize just how little most people understand what it does not just to the Earth, but to people (it was pretty horrific what it was doing to people living in the immediate vicinity; on one farm in Australia, a guy was able to light his water well on fire because of the gasses that fracking was leeching into the ground water).

      I like your point about keeping up with the Kardashians. A misplacement of our priorities is largely what keeps us in the dark about these things. I’m sure those who have an interest in keeping the masses in the dark know that and help fund distractions whenever possible. 🙁

  3. Bravo Raam. Not following the mainstream and making up our own minds is important – but if we get in the habit of accepting the counter-current uncritically, we fall into a victim culture.

    It’s almost impossible to have a comprehensive view of the world without relying on third party sources for information, that we must decide to trust as we could never investigate them all properly.

    Which is why I now reject the idea of a comprehensive view of the world. The good life is simpler.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Ali!

      Yes, it’s nearly impossible to uncover the truth about everything in this increasingly complex world. However, there is a lot we can do to point us in the right direction.

      With things that affect us directly (food, environment, products), we can do personal experiments to help us determine if what we’re being told (by doctors, scientists, businesses) is the truth, a fabrication, or simply misled knowledge.

      When we’re sharing things on the web, we can read the entire article before sharing and we can cross-check facts via Twitter searches and Wikipedia entries.

      I don’t think the point is to investigate all sources fully, but rather to live mindful and conscious of the fact that not everything is as it seems, and in fact most things are not as they seem. It’s dangerous to live accepting the counter-current simply because it’s the counter-current. That’s no different than blindly accepting the mainstream-current!

      We need to live consciously, question more, and do more personal experiments to test things we accept as truth.

  4. Raam I am glad you wrote about this Telephone Game / Chinese Whispers idea because it was running through my mind as I wrote that tweet, and I was about to re-write the tweet until I realised that what I had written was actually the truth! US jets did drop bombs on the Great Barrier Reef and this is undisputed.

    Whether the bombs exploded or not is inconsequential to the point I wanted to make, which is that the USA finds it acceptable to jettison bombs on a World Heritage Site and national treasure. I do not.

    I actually spent the next hour researching Talisman Saber and I should have shared more. Silence on the internet achieves nothing. Better to whisper and be open to learning the truth than to never whisper at all. The internet gives humanity incredible voice, so speak.

    • Hi Ross,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. (I love that you can reply directly to me on this essay; this is exactly why I will always leave comments open on my site.)

      For our reference, here’s your original tweet:

      USA actually bombed Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this week

      In your comment above, you said “US jets did drop bombs on the Great Barrier Reef“. Yes, that is true, but that’s not what your tweet said.

      You said that the “USA actually bombed Australia’s Great Barrier Reef“. The expression ‘to bomb’ means to cause destruction, to attack. If somebody is ‘bombing’ something, they are attacking it.

      Was any coral reef ‘attacked’? Not at all.

      So how is your tweet “the truth“?

      the USA finds it acceptable to jettison bombs on a World Heritage Site and national treasure

      I was born here. I’m a citizen of the USA, so wouldn’t that statement include me? I can tell you that I certainly do not find it acceptable to jettison bombs on a World Heritage Site, or anywhere for that matter. I’m NOT ok with bombs being dropped anywhere, for any purpose, training or otherwise. I don’t believe war is necessary or that countries need to spend trillions on defense and I do not vote to support any such thing.

      Sweeping statements and generalizations that don’t hold individuals accountable but instead push the idea that a population of people are a particular way disregards what makes the Internet such a powerful and important tool: we can identify the individuals, or specific groups of people, who think a certain way and openly address them (so that others can see the discussion and consider their position). Clumping people into giant groups and saying things that indicate they all think or feel a certain way is throwing the baby out with the bath water. That’s what old media was fond of doing with newspapers, magazines, and television. We have the Internet now and it connects individuals. Let’s use that.

      Does the USA find it acceptable to release bombs into the ocean when it’s the safest option, or is that the US Navy, or one particular person within the US Navy (I highly doubt everyone in the US Navy finds it ‘acceptable’)? I don’t think there was any national vote in the USA on what should be done. Generalizing and including everyone for the sake of brevity is unnecessary and dangerous (especially online, because it helps spread the idea that every individual in the USA is of a particular opinion and mindset).

      Besides the fact that your tweet insinuates something was intentionally destroyed–which it wasn’t–your tweet clearly makes it sound like the entire United States voted to bomb the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Obviously that’s not the case either.

      USA actually bombed Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this week

      So is that a truthful statement? I argue it is not.

      • Princeton says that the verb ‘bombed’ means ‘to throw bombs at’. ( This is what happened. Bombs were thrown at a heritage site.

        Your rewrite “US Navy jets forced to dump unarmed bombs in ocean off Australia’s east coast“ dilutes the message just as you argue I have strengthened the point in mine.

        Yes your government represents you just as my government represents me. Any action of the US military is being done for the US President who represents the entire nation. In a democracy right?

        30 days until the next Australian election. Since you mention them above, I wonder how this new entrant will do?

        • My rewrite didn’t dilute the message, it simply stated the truth, which is not very sensational in this particular case.

          We are not living in a democracy. We are living in society where money rules. Anyone outside of politics who struggles to pay their bills and thinks they actually make a significant difference in government policy or that their opinion actually counts for something with regards politics, is delusional.

          As far as I am concerned, “my government” doesn’t represent me any more than a starfish somewhere on the bottom of the ocean represents me. I think of myself as a citizen of the Earth, not of a particular nation. Yes, for the sake of discussion I am ‘technically’ a US citizen, an ‘American’, but that’s not what I base my choices on. I take into consideration the planet.

          Until money stops being the ruling force in this world, politics will largely remain nothing more than a gossip group for the rich where change happens in tiny increments, always with the interest of the rich in mind. We need to work towards changing that and I believe that movement has already started, right here with the Internet connecting individuals around the planet.

          As of right now, only around 30% of the planet is online.

          • You don’t find the message sensational because you don’t value the reef in the same way that many Australians do. And that’s okay. But your statements are whispering away our right to hold that perspective, and that’s why I am still here commenting.

            Renunciation of citizenship is a significant move! Here’s a list to contemplate of things people have done in the past when their governments do not represent them

          • What perspective am I whispering away? What rights am I whispering away?

            I do indeed value the reef, just as I do the entire ocean, which I grew up swimming in and enjoying. The issue I’m addressing, as you brought up from your first comment, was that of you stating that your tweet was the truth. I disagree. It certainly could be interpreted as the truth, but the truth shouldn’t need to be interpreted; it should be plainly obvious. In your case, the “truth” that you shared in that tweet was not plainly obvious. It was misleading.

  5. Like James Schipper I, too, thought the rest of the post may have been about the food industry which is arguably doing more damage than big tobacco ever did. The segue to the Great Barrier Reef situation seems awkward. The incident did happen but it’s a fleeting story and not likely to get spun further or have long term effects. And even stating the facts of the situation it’s hard for it not to sound sensational. This example seems more like a variation in perspective than a Chinese Whisper.

    • Hi Michelle,

      Is perspective not what influences our “whispers”? Perspective is extremely important when sharing things, online or offline. Variations in perspective are exactly what cause messages to change as they move from person to person (like in a game of broken telephone) and no more clearly can I see this illustrated than in the example I gave with the misleading tweets.

      It’s not wrong to state sensational facts or even to share them. But when something is changed for to increase sensationalism, that’s wrong, and dangerous. If someone tweeted the truth about the ‘bombing’ incident, it might have sounded like this: “US Navy jets forced to dump unarmed bombs in ocean off Australia’s east coast“.

      But that’s not very interesting, exciting, or sensational, is it? Changing the truth to make something sound more sensational is exactly what prevents the truth from surfacing (the truth about many things, things that directly affect you and me).

  6. Another thought, inspired by this article as well as the comments here:

    There feels like there is a common theme, hard to put my finger on but I’ll try.

    When I hear “the US did this” “the US did that” I know it’s nothing to do with the people in the US. The US as an entity makes it’s own decisions and I assume on such a deep level that it’s so divorced from democracy that I hear it as meaning “some twirps in a giant bureaucracy failed to take personal responsibility and let this shit happen.”

    How much can nations be identified by their ‘leadership’? As many in Israel, Russia and probably most other countries know, it isn’t really fair to do so.

    Is it fair to reject Russia as a nation because of the anti-gay policies of it’s leadership? No, I don’t think so, because the nation itself shouldn’t be defined by it’s leadership. The nation is the people. The ‘leadership’ is a red tape, a candy wrapper, and as damaging as it can be, superfluous.

    To me the main issue Raam raises in this post to me is the automatic assumption of evil-doing, and the willing propagation of this miscommunication, assumedly because it fits with a world-view where “the US” does nasty things everywhere, which isn’t always the case at all. It’s something that happens easily in an era where we read mostly headlines. But we should own up to not wielding our creative agency purposefully enough when we make the mistake, or better yet, interact with more deliberate dignity in usually fast-paced the digital sphere.

    I would vote not to hold the US accountable even if the reef was bombed (I interpret that as meaning ‘exploded with bombs,’ for what it’s worth. It’s not about semantic rules, it’s what was communicated that matters.).

    For the good they sometimes do I am very wary of the wikileaks party. They’ll never get anywhere. I see Assange as part warrior part freeloader. His organisation will willingly look for dirt and use it to destroy even globally important efforts, such as the IPCC’s (intergovernmental panel on climate change). Basically, they do some good but also have too much of a negative view of the world coupled with what I could only call subtle paranoia, which means they have the potential to do great bad also. Still, the truth never hurt and in the long run perhaps they will only cause agencies like the IPCC to be more thorough, communicable and transparent.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Ali.

      While I don’t have much to say about the WikiLeaks Party, I love what WikiLeaks has done for transparency and I’m all for anything that encourages transparency. My feeling is that the old style of politics (which hasn’t changed much in a long, long time) is broken due to the advent of the Internet.

      What I think will emerge as more and more people get online and connect across the globe is a global political system powered by the people. I don’t see this happening tomorrow or even within the next decade, so I’m glad that groups like WikiLeaks are stepping forward to usher in a new way of approaching politics.

      The whole notion of “nations” doesn’t even exist online. In fact, as I was writing this and thinking about Australia as a country, I forgot for a moment that you’re Australian! It just feels natural to think of you as another human being that I’m connecting with, not as a human being that ‘belongs’ to a particular country. And that’s what I love about the Internet: it makes us equal on the levels that matter.

      The thing that will bridge ‘the people’ with the powers that control things in the physical world will be individuals using the increasing power that technology gives them to shape public opinion and awareness. We already know that if enough people voice their opinion in one direction, the “powers that be” are powerless to challenge them (largely because they recognize that whatever their agenda, they need the majority).

      • Absolutely. As I mentioned before on your site, we still might need countries for economic zones. But as humanity grows up it’s need to govern itself will diminish.

        Regarding Wikileaks, I see them as a critical force – who rather than build something will spend their efforts to take other things down. Good, bad, not sure, but I have the feeling the a better future won’t be built that way.

      • Not everything that doesn’t add up equals conspiracy. Evidence sometimes isn’t really evidence. If you’re selective on who you dig dirt on, and people listen to you, you have a lot of power. Most large organisations will have something dirty somewhere, or something that sounds dirty, because they’re made of humans.

  7. Raam, your piece really resonated with me. I’ve been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation via social media without bothering to check the facts. Thank you for your gentle, wise reminder that being discerning is more important now than ever.

    • You’re most welcome, Rod. I think we’ve all been guilty of this at some point. I know I certainly have been. We need to practice being more conscious of how easy these new tools make global communication and take responsibility for thinking about how others will interpret our message.

      I remember seeing an interview with a famous basketball player who uses Twitter and when he was asked how he decides what to tweet he admitted that 80% of what he thinks of saying he ends up throwing away before he presses Tweet. He realized that it’s so easy for people to misinterpret his messages, no matter how innocent, so he’s more careful about what he says.

      I think we all need to apply a similar philosophy. I’m not suggesting we hide the truth or don’t speak out about injustice, but rather that we consider the wording of our message more carefully (especially important on Twitter, where we’re limited to 140 characters!).


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