I received an email with a disturbing story that seems like more people should know about. At the bottom, it even suggests that I forward it on to everyone I know. It seems such an important issue … and yet I’ve been told that I shouldn’t forward this kind of thing. Why not?
I get that kind of email from time to time also. Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty good skeptical “nose” for sniffing this kind of thing out.
What is it I’m smelling?
A big pile of lies, frauds, and misinformation usually.
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Folks, you simply must approach the internet with skepticism. It’s chock full of misinformation, and a lot of it shows up in your email inbox.
Every few days, it seems, I receive a forwarded plea warning us about the latest political abuse, conspiracy, health threat, or computer virus, or telling me I can get money by forwarding the email to all my friends. That last part is key: “forward this to everyone you know!” is almost always present. They’ve come to be known as urban legends.
And they’re almost always wrong.
At the risk of sounding like a great email I saw a few years ago: Bill Gates is not tracking your email, and he will not pay you to forward this. The Gap is not handing out coupons based on how many people you forward your email to. Tampon manufacturers are not adding asbestos to promote bleeding (and more tampon use). Envelopes are not being sent out with viruses that release when you open them [Check here for info on anthrax scares, which sound similar.]
Sites like Snopes will quickly and easily allow you to search and determine whether that important plea is just another hoax.
You get the idea. It goes on and on.
And they all insist that for your health or for your wealth or for the education or protection of others, you should forward the email to everyone you know.
Don’t. PLEASE don’t. Just resist the urge.
At least, don’t do it until you’re sure it’s legitimate. And if it asks you to “Forward this to everyone you know,” or “Tell all your friends and loved ones,” chances are it’s not.
How do you tell if it’s legit?
You’ll note that each of the examples above are, in fact, links to pages which describe in sometimes excruciating detail the hoax, its origins, variations, and most important of all…whether or not it is true. There are many great sites that you can use to find out. I’m particularly fond of Snopes – it’s rare that I can’t find what I’m looking for there, and each item has a clearly written and well researched explanation of it’s truth or fallacy. Sites like Snopes will quickly and easily allow you to search and determine whether that important plea is just another hoax.
There are many reasons to care about the issue. Certainly forwarding email that is in fact wrong is kind of like putting garbage in the inboxes of all your friends and family; at best, you’re wasting their time, and at worst, you’re causing unnecessary anxiety. (Check out the end of the discussion of the so-called Klingerman Virus for one extreme case of hoax-induced anxiety.) Realize also that many people still pay by the minute to connect and download email; these hoaxes (very much like spam) are eating up time and bandwidth and costing them money.
Isn’t it safer to just forward – just in case it’s true?
No. It’s really more likely that you’d be passing on misinformation. It’s really very simple … check it out before you forward. If you don’t check it out, don’t forward and no harm done. If there’s actually an important, legitimate issue, then chances are you’ll see it in the legitimate press … we’ve seen that recently with very real computer viruses and terrorist anthrax threats making front-page news. Email is not how news organizations, corporations, and government spread legitimate news and important information.
So… tell all your friends!
OK, so I’m only being partly facetious. You’re obviously welcome to point people at this article (or not) as you see fit. But as you see, urban legends being passed around the internet take it as an opportunity … the more people that “get it,” the fewer bogus stories, warnings, and other garbage that we’ll all have to wade through. You’ll educate a few people and reduce, by a small amount, the misinformation on the internet.
(This is a revision of an essay I originally wrote in 2001.)
Snopes.com, my favorite all-around urban legend site.
FaceCrooks for Facebook related hoaxes and scams.
Symantec’s Security Response Center for tracking down virus warnings
The Spam Primer, which goes into this topic in more details. Let’s face it, ultimately you are sending spam when you forward urban legends.