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06/06/2005 Archived Entry: "Hoaxes and Chain Mail"

I have something to pass along to the world of freelance writers, PR practitioners, and others who are professionally engaged in communications.

I’m writing about the phenomenon of forwarded “call to action” emails. Otherwise known as “chain mails,” they are innocently packaged stories that often begins with a deal beyond belief or a tale of impending disaster or dire strait. After the body of the message is through with tugging your chain or heart strings, the follow-up is often a request to sign a petition, send money, make a phone call, and then to pass along the “original” message to ever more people. Even the most resolute and non-participatory among us melts when reading about the terminally ill child in Spokane or the distraught parent in Miami. And, oh how the flames rage when we read about the latest fraud scheme, social injustice, or the “real” story about a special interest.

Now… be honest. Nobody is watching. How many of you have actually participated in a ‘chain’? I have, but only early on when I was new to email. After a few embarrassments, I adopted a sure-fire solution – I check the facts before I forward. It’s actually quite easy to do: ‘copy’ a sentence or phrase from the suspect message and paste it into a Google search. You will get one of three possibilities: nothing (rarely), a list of newstories confirming the email (rarer still), or a list of hoax references (9 times out of 10).

As full time – 24/7/365 – professional communicators, we hold the mantle as people who are serious enough about what we say because people assume that we spend a minute or two checking our facts. In our little spheres of friends and colleagues, aren’t we the ones who people look up to when it comes to news items or calls to action? Are we not what demographers and statisticians call “opinion leaders”?

Being vigilant about what you forward will help assure that eventually we can break the most insidious hoaxes; it can also insure you from professional embarrassment. Take as example two attorneys – both very dear friends of mine – who recently forwarded chains. The first one is from “Joisey.” She forwarded that old yarn about how Nina Totenberg (of NPR fame) recently went on the air with a report about Congress cutting funding for public broadcasting. My friend is a public defender, an activist, and considers herself fairly adept at email etiquette. Nevertheless, she managed to forward this message to nearly all of her clients and friends before I was able to warn her that it was a hoax – a fairly old one, actually, which stung all the more.

The latest was from another attorney who considers himself a professional in sorting out the chaff and the kernels of the Internet flood. He specializes in fraud litigation, but also works for the Pentagon (a fraud intelligence consultant, no less), and has clients who pay him to watch out for fraud, has written books about avoiding fraud, has even been on CNN offering tips on detecting fraud… and uhm… in particular, email hoaxes. Well… he got a forward from a trusted source about “809” telemarketing fraud and rewrote much of the message before rebroadcasting it to his entire list of clients and research associates. Yep… you guessed it. Another hoax. While this one has elements of truth (and my friend added his own brand of counteractions), the original 809 warning had mutated with errors that my friend mistakenly included – the most embarrassing point is that “809” is now exclusively the area code of the Dominican Republic.

The lesson here? The Internet is pretty cool, but the information we get from it is only as smart as the dumbest mistake (like forwarding hoaxes). And we, as the purveyors of much of the buzz – online and off – have perhaps more than our share of responsibility to improve the chances that e-mail can be intelligent once again.

Of course the obvious remedy for chain hoaxes is to cease forwarding – but where’s the fun in that? -HP

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