Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pro’s & con’s of information sharing on the Internet: A tool to separate false rumors about pets and pet food from the truth?

Elizabeth the other day sent me a link to a site called The link supposedly was dealing with the rumor going around that there was a fatal incident of a dog licking the kitchen floor after the dog’s owner had cleaned it with a Swiffer Wet Jet. Elizabeth, because she hears it from me almost every day, knows how furious I get about unsubstantiated rumors on the Internet and that I am sort of on a mission to fight a battle I most likely can’t win. You may or may not recall my reporting on the Swiffer incident Consumer Affairs: Dog dies because of Swiffer Cleaner? Related to the general problem of people spreading rumors and their followers letting them snowball into horrific Internet disaster news I also wrote Case file Pet Food: Pro's and Con's of information sharing on the Internet and as a follow-up FDA and DogsWell Breathies Chicken Treats for Dogs: More pro’s and con’s of information sharing on the Internet. Both comments mainly are related to the consequences following such false info, which is what I am concerned about as it affects not just our but many other businesses and gets too many pet owners worried for no reason. I deal with this every day: Every rumor has to be investigated and the truth has to be found. Because based on these rumors I sure enough get plenty of calls from concerned pet owners wondering what I know about these stories. We all together waste plenty of valuable time, which could be used more effectively with the real objectives like in my case the health of everybody’s pet. Additionally it can hurt the business, because once a product is bad mouthed it sure has some negative side taste attached to it and that reflects in sales. To make sure you don’t think I make this up, I can tell you that I had actually pet food store owners calling me to confirm such impact and wondering if they should take legal action to fight the problem.
Anyway, I clicked on Elizabeth’s link and got upset because the 1st pop-up told me to buy 1 pair of shoes to get another one for free, the second one invited me to find my class mates and the third one showed me the opportunity to find a partner for a life time. Into the recycle bin went the link and for me the case was closed. Until my wife brought it up for discussion during dinner and told me that this Snopes site is actually dealing with the same problem: Clarifying and wiping out unsubstantiated rumors. Off I went for another try. Still pop-ups (so don’t say I didn’t warn you, I will give you the link at the end of this story), but this time I made it onto the site just find out that our biggest competitor is advertising with them. Additionally, a Science Diet ad and another ad of a law firm soliciting people who got bit by a dog just made me somewhat skeptical and so far the site certainly had not earned a lot of credibility with me yet. But then I read the actual comment and I sure ended up changing my mind. Their story begins with the actual rumor, in this case the message about the, let’s call him “Swiffer dog”. Then they analyze the story and are doing actually a pretty good job.
They start out criticizing the rumor itself, the fact that the story is anonymous, i.e. there is no way to do any follow-up and further investigation. I believe that is actually a good indication that something smells funny. I faced a similar problem when I looked further into the rumor of an apparent Canidae class action law suit, initially there was not even a law firm listed though they solicited complaints from pet owners having problems after feeding this brand.
Then the person who comments on the message describes in detail the results of his/her investigation. It turns out that they looked into MSDS sheets, investigated the ingredients of the product in question and looked at manufacturer responses. Overall it looks like someone has actually done his home work and I found the outcome to be interesting and informative, especially since it helped the effort to get the issue off the table.
In conclusion the site mentions that the Animal Poison Control Center (ASPCA) responded to the incident as follows:
“Veterinary toxicologists regard allegations of liver failure and death from household cleaner as unfounded.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (Urbana, IL) May 6, 2004 -- Veterinary toxicologists at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center have reviewed the claim described in a widely distributed email alleging a relationship between the use of Swiffer Wet Jet and liver failure in a dog. The email alleges that exposure to the ingredients in Swiffer Wet Jet caused a dog's death.
The Swiffer Wet Jet system contains water (90-100%), propylene glycol n-propyl ether or propylene glycol n-butyl ether and isopropyl alcohol (1-4%). These ingredients are safe to use around pets when used according to label directions and would not cause liver damage at product concentrations. Propylene glycol n-butyl/propyl ether differs significantly from ethylene glycol, the potentially toxic ingredient present in most antifreeze products. Ethylene glycol is frequently implicated in causing renal failure in dogs following antifreeze ingestion. Propylene glycol n-propyl ether and propylene glycol n-butyl ether are very safe ingredients at levels used in cleaning products and do not cause kidney or liver failure.
The ASPCA will continue to monitor this situation and will post any additional information as it becomes available. Please call 1-888-426-4435 if you have any questions or have a pet that you suspect is experiencing problems, or visit us at”
Well, I checked the ASPCA site for any follow-up comments, there is nothing there. Note also that the press release dates back to May 2004, almost 5 years ago. Yet the issue comes up over and over again. I had the other day a customer calling me being very concerned about something bad she read about the Innova food I had recommended for her puppy, that incident dated back two years ago and though totally unsubstantiated, still comes up and causes trouble.
So here we go, another case of a false rumor distributed over the Internet comes to a close. The result is clear: A lot of excitement about absolutely nothing. The sad part is that actually and unfortunately it doesn’t come to a close, because once it’s out there in cyber space it is there to stay as we see from the dates in this case. It will come up over and over again.
Coming back to Snopes, the person commenting on the case in closing is wondering why people do things like spreading false rumors. Like in the case of the Swiffer dog, was it emotions in reaction to the fatal outcome? Finding excuses to distract from other facts, which may actually really have caused the fatality but are directly attributable to the pet owner’s wrong doing? Or is it just people holding for whatever reason a grudge against certain companies? Well, I don’t have the answer to this question either. And rather than wondering why this constantly happens I wish we could come up with a way to stop this ….. One idea to help the problem I have though. I think it is a good idea to not always share everything what comes across our desktop. There is a lot of people out there who immediately when they see or hear something on the Internet feel they have the obligation to share with the rest of the world. I’d say first look, then think, then look deeper, think again and then share. Like it was definitely the case with the Swiffer dog, the problem often turns from a snowball into an avalanche because people thought it was necessary to share the news. And nobody really cared about the facts behind it.
Snopes may be helpful in finding out the truth, but at the end of the day I would say they don’t want rumors to disappear either since they make a living with them. Plus it will much depend on how fast they can react to cases, I cannot see them being much faster than we would be by ourselves. I checked their site, they have quite a collection of that kind of material on their site in any area of public interest and also plenty of pet related stuff. Maybe in future I take a look there first and maybe their work can save me some time in what I will do anyway: My own investigation to make sure I know what I’m talking about.
Here’s the link I promised, turn on your pop-up blocker and snope away: Swiffer Wet Jet.

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