E-mails and Misinformation, Part II

Back to My Soapbox

10 March 2004

A month and a half ago, I wrote an essay about why it's important to be careful what you forward in e-mail, particularly not to send on hoaxes and myths because of the harm that they can cause. One of my coworkers has forwarded me a few e-mails that I've sent back corrections on. I just sent one back this past week, and apparently they were tired of me correcting them- it pissed them off pretty good. So, I verbally apologized (sincerely), and then sent the e-mail below explaining my actions. I think it does a pretty good job of explaining my opinions, giving a few more examples than my last Soapbox entry.

I'm sorry that I upset you- I didn't mean to. And I'm not singling you out in correcting e-mails. I do it all the time with Irma [my fiancée] or anyone else that forwards me anything, so much so that I've gotten Irma to start checking out e-mails on her own, and she'll reply to her friends to correct them if they send her something false.

And I don't correct people just for the sake of correcting them. There are so many hoaxes and myths that get passed around over e-mail, and no matter how inocuous they seem, or how good the intentions are of the people sending them, many still have the possibility of doing more harm than good. I'll give you a few examples to let you know what I'm talking about.

Irma sent me an e-mail about how you're supposed to start coughing if you think you're having a heart attack, something about compressing your chest cavity enough to still circulate a little bit of blood (http://www.snopes.com/toxins/coughcpr.htm). As it turns out, unless you're an expert or extemely lucky, in some cases, that's the worst thing you can do. It could turn a minor heart attack into a fatal one.

There's another e-mail going around about criminals masquerading as police officers (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/mayhem/fakecop.htm). That's true, but the e-mail's advice is to dial #77 while you're on the highway if you're suspicious of a police officer behind you. Unfortunately, not all states have #77. So if you're driving cross country in an area you're not familiar with, and you dial #77 because that's what you're used to or because that's what you remember from the e-mail, you may not got any help. The best advice, which wasn't in the e-mail, is to dial 911, and you'll definitely get the help you need. In fact, there are quite a few e-mails that I consider similar to this. While the story may be true, they don't necessarily give the best advice, or they narrow your focus to a certain situation, keeping you from thinking in general terms.

Jay [my boss] sent me an e-mail that suggested that you put "AAAAAAA@a.aaa" as the lead name in your e-mail address book. It's supposed to give you a warning if your computer gets infected by a virus, by causing you to get a reply that you tried to mail something to that address (http://www.snopes.com/computer/virus/quickfix.htm). Unfortunately, viruses are more sophisticated than that, and this really does nothing to protect you. Worse, it gives people a sense of security when there is none, making them more prone to getting their computer infected by a virus. A similar e-mail which gave people instructions to protect their computer from viruses was actually instructing them to delete an important file from their computer (http://www.snopes.com/computer/virus/sulfnbk.htm).

There's an e-mail going around telling you not to use your cell phone at the gas station (http://www.snopes.com/autos/hazards/gasvapor.asp). Basically, it says that something about your cell phone could cause the gas vapor to ignite. It's not true. But, a few months ago when we were in Olney, a guy flying his plane was leaking fuel out of his wing tanks. He was distracted by this e-mail which he had received earlier, and made sure to get his cell phone out and shut it off, but he forgot to put his landing gear down. Luckily, Stan [another coworker] saw him coming in with the gear up, so he got Bob Stark (operator of the FBO) to get on the radio and let him know, avoiding a disaster. Would he have put the gear down if he hadn't have been trying to get his cell phone out? Who knows, but I think it was definitely a distraction that he didn't need at the time.

And those are just a few of the e-mails with advice. There are hundreds more, plus all of the other e-mail myths that just plain spread false information (like the one about Tommy Hilfiger supposedly being a racist- http://www.snopes.com/racial/business/hilfiger.asp). At the best, these just keep people ignorant of the truth. At the worst, they can damage reputations, spread hatred, or make people do something that they shouldn't have.

So it's not that I correct your e-mails because I'm trying to be a smart ass, or because I'm out to get you. I'm genuinely trying to help keep hoaxes and myths from being perpetuated. I never forward something on to people unless I check it, first. I usually use http://www.snopes.com, but there are a few other sites out there that are just as good. And until I've checked an e-mail, I just assume it to be false, because 95% of them are. It's good to be skeptical when it comes to e-mail.

So, once again I'm sorry for upsetting you. But hopefully you can see why I do what I do with e-mails.

I really was sincere in my apology. I was not attempting to piss that person off. I was just trying to stop the spread of a myth.

To quote a line from Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility." It was a bit melodramatic in the movie (I never read the comics), but the meaning was there. Ability and responsibility go hand in hand. Information is very powerful, and e-mail has enabled everyday people to contact a much larger audience than they ever could before. When you forward on e-mails that you receive, you take responsibility for the information in that e-mail. So you better make sure that it's good information. Aside from being irresponsible, forwarding on information without checking its validity is akin to electronic gossip. You hear a story, think it sounds good, and send it off to all of your friends, just the same way as gossipers do by word of mouth.

But then, what is the best way to forward on an e-mail. In my last Soapbox entry, I suggested going to Snopes or some similar site to validate the story. That's still a good idea. But if you just forward on the original e-mail, the recipients don't know its validity (except by your reputation), so they'll have to go and look it up for themselves. So it's probably a good idea to include a link to the validation in your forward.

Better yet, those sites usually include links to the original source. If you can get a link to the original source, that'd be even better. In fact, me and my friends hardly ever send entire stories over e-mail. We usually just send links, with maybe about a paragraph intro about what the link is to. And that's what I think is the best thing to do. You're now citing a reputable source, and directing people to that source. No more monkeying around with e-mail messages that can be changed by any Joe Schmoe with an internet connection. Just be sure that your source is reputable. All those people that start the e-mail hoaxes and myths have websites, too.

And one more note on the harm of forwards in general, though it's a pretty small one. They use up bandwidth. It's almost like a worm. They just keep spreading from inbox to inbox. Only instead of infecting the computer, they infect the user. If people only sent out the true stories that they received, just think of how many less e-mails a day would be in your inbox.

So, while I'm sorry for upsetting my coworker, if I receive another false e-mail, I'll send another correction. Hoaxes and myths don't do anybody any good. It's everybody's responsibility to be careful what they send. So if someone is irresponsible and sends me a hoax or a myth, I will let them know what they did.

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