Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reflexive Forwarding

I enjoy a good email as much as the next guy. Good (clean) jokes and uniquely entertaining items are great. But I’m guessing that like me, most of you are continually assailed with a raft of emails that have been forwarded a dozen times and that prove to be somewhat less than enlightening. Very often this stuff comes from someone with whom we have a relationship that we value and who sometimes sends important emails, so we can’t simply screen out everything they send. Usually I simply blow these things off. But sometimes I am so intemperate as to respond with some facts.

Let me give a couple of examples. Every year as we make the shift to the driving season, gas prices go up. And soon thereafter I get a number of emails whining about how much money the oil companies are making and calling for some action that is based in extreme naivety of how the oil and gasoline economy functions. I discussed this at length in this May 2006 post. As we are now in a season of spiking gasoline prices, I expect that a number of these emails will soon proliferate. If you get one, don’t bother to forward it to me or I will feel obligated to hit the Reply to All button and expose your naivety.

We regularly get emails that have the look and feel of an urban hoax. Yesterday I got an email that purported to contain a monologue Andy Rooney gave on a 60 Minutes broadcast. After reading the first paragraph I knew that the words were not those of Andy Rooney. Rooney often talks bluntly, but not that bluntly. And much of what was written was simply out of character for Rooney’s known political views. (Rooney forthrightly says, “I am consistently liberal in my opinions,” while the obnoxiously-toned email was anything but liberal.) It took me less than 20 seconds to find evidence that the message was a hoax (see here).

I’m no Andy Rooney fan (or sympathizer), but I felt impelled to reply to the sender and everyone on the recipient list with my insights. The gist of my impertinent response was that, while I don’t mind a good entertaining email, we ought to be people that are interested in truth. It has something to do with my views on the ninth commandment, which I believe is not a relic of a past age. Passing on lies that are represented as truth (even if done in the name of entertainment) is in my view a violation of the commandment to not bear false witness against one’s neighbor. (If you need instruction on who your neighbor is, check out the parable of the Good Samaritan.)

The Rooney email hoax has been around since 2003. Rooney denied that he originated it back then. He spoke directly about it on the October 23, 2005 broadcast of 60 Minutes, where he said, “If I could find the person who did write it using my name I would sue him.” It is clear that this lie has caused injury to Rooney. According to Jesus, Rooney is my neighbor and I ought to love him as I love myself, even if I strongly disagree with him and find his demeanor occasionally offensive.

I’m only using the Rooney email hoax because it’s the latest one to get my dander up. There have been many others. In fact, there has been a relatively continuous stream of them. Sometimes it has to do with drugs distributed to little kids as candy or tattoos (here), fake photos or videos (here), carcinogens in plastic water bottles (here), the dangers of flashing your headlights (here), kids getting stuck by syringes in the ball pit at McDonald’s (here), an LDS Sacrament meeting in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces (here), Coke dissolving teeth overnight (here), John Hanson being the actual first U.S. President (here), misstated or misattributed quotes (here), atheists banning religious broadcasting on TV (here), generating corporate donations to a cause by forwarding an email (here), or any number of other piles of crap.

One of the categories that really bothers me is faith promoting stories that are not true or that have been somewhat manipulated to make events seem more miraculous than they really were. I am not at all ashamed of my religious faith. But I believe the scriptures when they equate God with truth in hundreds of references. Untrue emotionally inspiring stories may send tingles up our spines. But I assert that if they are not true, not only are they not of God, but they are antithetical to the nature of God. The Spirit cannot bear record of a falsehood.

By forwarding inspiring falsehoods we can damage the actual faith of others. Think of the harm caused by Paul Dunn. I believe that God’s truth is so good that it does not require embellishment to make it more palatable. Of all people, those that purport to be religious ought to be most interested in truth and in avoiding the perpetuation of falsehoods.

I don’t believe you need a particularly high level of intelligence to notice that a given email has the stench of rottenness. Anything that sounds too good to be true, that is out of character, that is designed to elicit an emotional response, that requests some kind of action, or that suggests that you must forward it to other people ought to be checked out. Checking out something you are considering forwarding should be default behavior.

How do you check something out? Simple. Go to Snopes for most stuff. There is a box for typing in search terms, or you can click on a category and drill down. Snopes posts research on various urban legends. They try to track down the origin of the legend and determine its veracity. Some are actually true. Some are half truths. Some are still being researched. But the bulk of the legends have been proven false. If you’re looking for something specifically related to the LDS Church, check out Shields. There are a variety of other hoax busting sites available (see here — some links are broken).

Not everything you receive that demands it be forwarded is readily researchable. But if anything in it meets the criteria of a hoax or is the least bit questionable, I think it would be best not to forward it. If you discover something you received is false, don’t feel badly about responding to the sender and saying so. A true friend will provide gentle correction when a friend is out of line rather than letting the friend continue in error under the guise of loyalty and/or peace.

There is a lot of crap floating around in the world of email. I am simply asking that each of us take a moment to reflect (and research if necessary) before we reflexively hit the forward button. It shouldn’t take too long. And then we will at least not be party to the legion of lies polluting cyberspace.


Cameron said...

I heartily agree. Especially devious is the email with truth mingled with falsehood. Most of the time though, it just doesn't take that much effort, or common sense, to sift out the junk.

Jesse said...

It takes only one public spanking for urban legend forwarders to discontinue the practice for good. Embarrassment is a surprisingly effective tool in that regard.

The worst forwarders are the political junkies from the fringes. As soon as they have your address showing up in their mail client, you're subjected to every "must read" piece of flotsam and jetsam that winds its way into their inbox. It's almost worse than being forwarded obvious hoaxes since you can't embarrass them into ceasing.

y-intercept said...

Encountering obviously false emails is probably good for us, since it keeps us focused on the fact that most of the information we get through various sources is spun.

Often the most damaging material comes from sources that we respect but that use a small amount of spin. For example, newspapers can generally turn an election by using the purr and snarl word method. Most papers use slightly more positive words when talking about Democrats than Republicans.

It is not the blatant non-truths that snooker people but the subtle connotations.

I don't get too terribly upset with the really wild urban legends as they provide fodder for good thinking. It is the subtle things which really lead people into danger.

Jeremy said...

This post just got added to my favorites. I'll send the link to anyone who sends me an inane stupid fraudulent feel good story by email.

Hopefully it will help your site deserve as much added exposure as possible for this excellent post.

Frank Staheli said...

I stopped listening to a (not-so-well-known) national radio talk show host because he regurgitated one of these urban legends about how Australia's crime rate had gone way up because they had banned guns. It wasn't hard to find out that the story was a hoax from something like 5 years ago.

Such regurgitation of falsehood as fact does nearly irreparable harm to the cause it is supposing to help.