Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The boot heel of Snopes

Your right to urban legends

My niece “Becky” has learned her lesson and no longer forwards so-called inspirational messages to me. It's a relief. I wish cousin “Phyllis” was as quick on the draw. First it was a “joke” about a Dallas-Fort Worth air traffic controller playfully directing a Saudi airliner onto a collision course with an Egyptian airliner. I replied, “This one isn't funny. It's merely offensive.” A pretty unambiguous reaction, right?

Next was an Internet joke in the form of an election year complaint from a senior citizen who had lost his job, home, and health insurance under the Bush administration; it was “signed” Saddam Hussein. Yeah, pretty funny. That's what I said in my response: “Ha ha. So very funny. Currently Bush's war in Iraq has cost us over 2240 American soldiers' lives.” Damned hilarious.

Then Phyllis forwarded the fabulous news that Bill Gates was giving money away. That rascal is always doing that sort of thing, isn't he? “For every person that you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00.” Hey, I also heard that the word “gullible” isn't in the dictionary. No, really. Go look it up! I tried sweet reason:
These things are always bogus. When you forward them to people on your mailing list, you're just adding to the spam traffic on the Internet. So don't forward them. They're fake. Always. No one is using the Internet to give money away to people who forward mail. Sorry.

So what does Phyllis send me a day later? The infamous gas war chain letter! You see, all we have to do is boycott the biggest petroleum company and it will be forced to lower gas prices. It's a sure thing! I'm afraid I was running low on sweet reason this time:
Geez, Phyllis. Please pay attention to me this time: Don't forward any more Internet stuff. It's fake, false, bogus, fraudulent, invalid, and you can look up more words in your copy of Roget's. Once again, the urban legend website tells the story:

The really irritating part in this message is “Well, let's face it, you just aren't a mathematician. But I am, so trust me on this one.” Maybe the guy is a mathematician, but he sure isn't a very good one. He says to forward the message to 30 people and hope they each send it on to 10 more, for a total of 300 people, etc. Do you know why the multiplier effect doesn't work? It's because you can't assume they send it out to different people. Even if people tried to follow through (the truth is that most people ignore forwarded mail, which I promise to do from now on instead of trying to explain it to people who aren't paying attention), a lot of them would just end up sending copies to each other. After all, aren't you in the mailing directories of the people you have in your own mailing directory?

Let's try to make this one go away.

This time it may have worked. Chastened, Phyllis replied, “Holy cow what a chewing out!! Just kidding, I will pay closer attention and I totally understand.”

This time she was able to resist until the recent immigration protests. She promptly forwarded all the family members a report that crime statistics plummeted dramatically on the day when immigrants were too busy marching in public demonstrations to devote their customary attention to shoplifting, armed robbery, and recreational murder.
Ha, ha. How funny. It's a hoax, of course. In very poor taste, too. The details are below.

Stop sending me stuff like this.

Three weeks have gone by and Phyllis has resisted the impulse to send me any Internet wisdom about WMDs finally having been found in Iraq or Gore's movie tanking at the box office. Instead of just ignoring her or consigning her messages automatically to the spam folder, I've tried to talk back with actual information. You know, the stuff that comes with references instead of the notorious friend-of-a-friend attribution. It may be a losing battle with my addled family. My own mother skipped her flu shot last year because my sister-in-law said she had heard they were bad for you. Mom got sick, of course. As a good boy, I refrained from yelling at her about the wisdom of taking medical advice from an air head.

Give me truthiness, or give me death!

Snopes is my favorite resource for debunking Internet nonsense and similar urban legends. I always include a link to when replying to forwarded bilge from family or friends. (Actually, only from family, now that I think of it. My friends don't forward dreck.) It never occurred to me, simple fellow that I am, that some people would bridle at a Snopes reference and recoil in righteous disgust. A friend of a friend (no, really!) received the following heated e-mail from an acquaintance who reacted very negatively to the Snopes item debunking the gas war message:
Some myths are true, you know. The Mikkelsons who started and still run can argue the details in the message you forwarded—fine—okay! They can even say the boycott strategy is not one they approve. That's their opinion. (I don't claim to know their motives fully.)

But there are other impacts that boycotts have on those who witness the boycotters. In the distant past the long-lasting grape boycott and the lettuce boycott helped the farm workers despite the criticisms of the press and stores and many others. As you know better than most, one person or many people acting out in public have an effect of witnessing for a larger truth. Boycotts may be one of our most effective voices in this consumer-driven economy?

Though I know that is regarded as a credibile scam-exposer, I argue that their habit of putting this kind of email into the same category as a scam intended to victimize someone is a really foul thing to do. It throws a wet blanket on some very honorable intentions.

Just because a long proposed boycott is on the Snopes list does NOT classifiy the entire notion as something worth dismissing for that reason alone. Buying fewer gallons of gas is an obvious way to send oil companies a message. Targetting a specific company or category of companies for boycott would be a tried and true action (bordering on civil disobedience these days when corporations are so much more powerful than the civil sector.)

I, for one, am glad you forwarded this. No apology is necessary. You can forward my comments to your list, if you wish.

If there were a real soapbox anywhere in our area, I'd get up on it and speak out against the back-breaking false authority that the has become. It has become mean-spirited bullying just as calling an idea “politically correct” is often done to derail conversation!!! There's a larger community that needs to think about and act on these matters.

My general rule is not to take seriously people who end sentences with three exclamation points. The writer also rather charmingly assumed that the gas war message was full of “very honorable intentions,” although she has no evidence for that. While I concede honorable intentions may have been involved, they were on the part of the naïve people who were gulled into passing along an unworkable scheme as if it were a sensible plan.

Save us please from (a) people who “mean well” and (b) the folks who trust people who say they mean well.

Give me the debunkers, please. I like my arguments evidence-based.


Anonymous said...

I posted a skeptical account of a mythical beast called the Ozark Howler on my blog, and I received some quite indignant comments in response.

Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

I came from the Skeptics' Circle. I read the Post #1... and I have also been put on someone's random email list. It is about a ministry that lives in South America, but have several medical issues... so I put them in my "killfile".

Anyway... by brother's family used to send me lots of these internet rumors. I finally talked to my brother, and he has taught his wife to run all the emails she forwards through Snopes. Yeah... there has been success!

Except this evening his wife sent me a 7 MB file of a cat repeatedly flushing a toilet. Sigh.

I just replied with the YouTube link to the same video.