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Spreading Misinformation Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s Dangerous

Aug. 26, 2022, 8:45 AM

Earlier this week, the IRS announced it was “conducting a comprehensive review of existing safety and security measures” in response to increasing threats against the agency. The IRS has long been a target of certain kinds of rhetoric. But the climate, health-care, and tax legislation signed into law last week became a flashpoint for angry taxpayers after misinformation was spread online by many, including lawmakers.

One of the points of misinformation was the allegation that additional funding would lead to a dramatic influx of armed IRS agents aimed at middle-class taxpayers and small businesses. I wrote about that response—and tried to set the record straight about IRS special agents—in an earlier column.

It didn’t take long for unhappy taxpayers to respond to efforts to dispel the untruths—and I wasn’t surprised.

But I didn’t expect the vitriol and anger from other lawyers and tax professionals aimed at IRS, the press, and fellow tax professionals. I was shocked to see social media posts with vile language, slurs, and loosely worded threats suggesting, in some cases, that anyone who took a different tack didn’t deserve to live.

Let that sink in for a moment.

To be clear, I believe that skepticism is healthy. Part of becoming a lawyer involves learning to think critically—that’s something they teach you in law school. You learn to look at all corners of a document, all pieces of a transaction, and all facts of a case to best represent your client’s interests.

As a tax attorney, much of my work involves looking at the bigger picture and thinking about what’s missing. When it comes to controversy or audit work, I won’t accept an assessment or allegation of a deficiency without diving into the data—a taxpayer is more than a ledger or a balance sheet.

So I understand the reluctance to simply accept statements as facts. As an attorney and a journalist, I encourage it.

But sharing information that you know, or have reason to know, is wrong isn’t expressing skepticism. And throwing up your hands and suggesting that it isn’t hurting anyone to plant the seeds of misinformation isn’t OK—just ask the more than 80,000 IRS workers who have been made to feel, as Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union said, as though “they are the enemy of the government.”

I’ve thought about this a lot lately. It’s not just this one news story. There’s been a definite lack of civility in some of the discourse that’s been carried out in public by those in our profession—not just directed at the IRS, but at other tax professionals and public officials.

I get that some of it is born out of frustration. We are collectively exhausted and frustrated. Refunds are slow, notices are filled with errors, and no one is picking up the phone. Taxpayers are angry at the constant barrage of delays and lack of information from the IRS. And they tend to take it out on us in the tax profession. That’s hard to simply shake off at the end of the day.

But we owe it to ourselves and our profession to be civil to one another.

I’m not conflating that with a lack of criticism. After all, civility is not the absence of criticism—that’s something you learn early on in the legal profession. And, as noted, there’s plenty to criticize.

I’m also not suggesting that we must always agree with each other. We all have different perspectives. We represent different interests. We aspire to different ideals. That means that conflict sometimes is inevitable.

My mom might suggest that arguing as a means to solve differences isn’t effective, but for many of us—especially those of us in the legal profession—it’s how we resolve conflict. If done the right way, it can uncover truths and contribute to a better result. At least, I’d like to think so.

But how we carry ourselves while doling out those criticisms and navigating those disagreements is important. Like it or not, we are held to high standards in our professions.

As I wrote this week’s column, I was reminded of the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” Only, now that I’m older, I know that it’s wrong. Words are incredibly powerful. And when you hurl them out on social or other media without regard for where they land, you can cause real damage—I’d urge you to remember that there are real people on the receiving end.

We should all do better.

This is a regular column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Phillips Erb in Washington at kerb@bloombergindustry.com