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by Jan Harold Brunvand
March 8, 1999
Behold, a winter of discontent. For the past several weeks, readers have asked me to investigate various warnings and calls to action. Everything from the sweetener in our soda pop, to the treatment of women in Afghanistan, are portrayed as crises that depend on every one of us (ab)using our e-mail to make the world a better place.
Generally, I class these kinds of message as "Forwardables." As discussed in my e-v-mail page, these are similar to chain letters, but "Forwardables" ask the recipient to participate in a grand plan to save the world (or a little piece of it), by resending an e-mail to all of one's friends.
As an Internet phenomenon, "Forwardables" still satisfy the CIAC's definition of online "chain letters": they feature three elements that the CIAC Chain Letter page calls The Hook, The Threat, and The Request. Essentially, the message connects you with an instantly recognizable danger, somehow asserts that such a danger exists right in your back yard ("It can happen to YOU!"), then all but demands that you spam the message to everyone that you can.
Those who send "Forwardables" to you may not realize they're true or false, may not care, and may even expect you to determine this for yourself. As I've discussed previously in "Hoax du Jour," this is the assumption that "Penny Robinson" (name changed) made when she forwarded the "Toxic Tampon" story from her professional e-mail address. She wanted readers to investigate further, but all she got was a flood of unsolicited e-mail back to her. This is the same fate that befell another hapless innocent, which I'll discuss later.
In recent months, readers of the "Hoax du Jour" have asked me to investigate the following rumors. What makes these intriguing "Forwardables" is one commonality these messages share: each are based loosely on some published information, but have become mutated and warped in their latest incarnations.
Several readers have asked me to comment on a resurgent diatribe that claims that aspartame is responsible for everything from headaches to Bad Hair Days.
What makes this message interesting is that there appears to be no Nancy Markle. The original piece, written by Betty Martini in 1995 to several USENET groups, seems to have been dusted off and resent under the (bogus) Markle identity.
I have no idea what Betty Martini's medical expertise is. It seems that she founded an organization called "Mission Possible" which is devoted to the claim that aspartame is a toxic poison. Mission Possible is one of many grass roots, consumer campaigns to eradicate this artificial sweetener from the planet.
The claims made in this message seem to be as bogus as the Nancy Markle identity, or the alleged "World Environment Conference." Similar to the Toxic Tampon scare a few months ago, this message makes outlandish claims that are never substantiated, but nevertheless asks the reader to hit that PANIC button,... and forward the message to as many new victims as possible.
David Emery has an excellent page on this particular "Forwardable" on his site at About.com, http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/blasp.htm. Please read it, review the many rebuttals to this claim that David links to, and then make up your own mind.
The troubling truth about many "Forwardables" is that they are based on fact, not fiction (as I contend that the "Betty Martini aspartame" and "Toxic Tampon" shockers are). In the case of a passionate message calling attention to the horrid plight of women in Afghanistan, the facts may be accurate. (Please review the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International links for a more authoritative account.) It's the reality about the e-mail petition that is quite misleading.
As Barbara Mikkelson documents on her site, the Urban Legends Reference Pages, this is an unfortunate example of a decent, naive attempt to generate public action ... gone awry.
There apparently was a email@example.com, who truly did start an e-mail petition. (Take that, Nancy Markle, wherever you are.) Granted, e-mail petitions, by their nature, are pretty useless, but try she did to make a difference.
She had no idea what a disaster it would become. As "Penny Robinson" discovered in the case of the "Toxic Tampon" alert, when you set a snowball rolling downhill with your own e-mail address prominently displayed, it's only a matter of time before the resulting avalance fills your e-mail In Box with hundreds, or thousands, of inquiries and replies.
Many educational and complimentary e-mail accounts (as well as personal accounts provided by commercial ISPs) are limited in their privileges and capacities. One common restriction is the ability to send out "mass mail." Another is a restriction on incoming mail. Activity that exceeds reasonable limits triggers security processes which suspend the account. Most users aren't aware of these restrictions (unless he or she reads the user agreement thoroughly). Let's face it, who among us normally sends out hundreds of e-mails within a few minutes ... or receives as much in as short a time?
This is probably the circumstance that befell the hapless young activist at Brandeis University. At one time, any message to the firstname.lastname@example.org address received an auto-reply including the following:
The mail address has long since been closed, so this chain letter petition now achieves absolutely nothing. Since e-mail petitions are generally ineffective, and the only contact listed has vanished without a trace, the only possible value of this message is to raise awareness. Send it on to a friend? You might as well just delete it.
For more information on the conditions in Afghanistan, visit the web site of RAWA.org, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. They offer information, sign-ups, and even merchandise you can buy to help fund their efforts.
Some of the more popular "Forwardable" topics online have decried some incursion by the Big Ol' Nasty Fed into civil liberties, in the guise of "regulatory change." This could be the unforeseen fallout from the calamity of the ill-fated Communications Decency Act (CDA), which in my opinion all but banished the concept of free speech on the Internet (until it was stopped in its tracks by court order).
Since, by their nature, regulatory changes are abstruse, any e-mail "scarelore" is bound to be more convincing than the facts. I strongly believe that this is the case in the recurring popularity of the various Internet Access Charge rumors. The manner in which the FCC, and the states, regulate Internet service providers is complex, to say the least; it's natural that an anonymous writer's hysterical (and unfounded) claims will seem plausible by comparison.
As reported by CNN on January 30, the The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) opened a 90-day public comment period in December regarding proposed "Know Your Customer (KYC)" regulations (governing programs aimed at identifying money laundering activity). (The KYC programs are so named because they generally help identify activities of suspicious account holders, rather than simply focusing on suspicious transactions.)
Initially, I understood that the notice of proposed rulemaking would lead to uniform standards by which these programs are administered. What was also clear was that KYC programs are generally already in place.
By January 30, 1999, some 14,000 or more e-mail messages and letters regarding the proposed regulation had flooded the FDIC's mail drop.
Apparently, the proposal was sufficiently abstruse, and so most people have become horrified that the proposed regulation might somehow require banks to violate their customers' privacy.
There has been very lively debate on the Internet about the FDIC proposal, including a large amount of spamming via instant messaging and e-mail. Many of the "Forwardables" read like this:
As e-mail alerts, messages like this one strictly conform to the CIAC definition of most chain letters. Can you see "The Hook?" How about "The Threat?" (Go back and read it again if you can't see "The Request.")
What makes this one particularly interesting is the fact that it is in fact a CGI-generated spam sent from the site at www.defendyourprivacy.com, sponsored by the Libertarian Party. The home page of this site specifically states:
The "PASS IT ON" link takes the visitor to a CGI form which sends out the message that I've quoted above. The resulting message does not identify that it was sent from defendyourprivacy.com, other than the initial mail server, srv01.webcommanders.com (the host site). It appears to be a normal message from the person who submits it on the site, though the message is anything BUT personalized. (I also noted that the site does nothing to authenticate the address of the person who uses the CGI form. It can be sent from any bogus identity.)
Note the key phrase, "Please forward this e-mail to everyone you know...." Despite the admonition against sending it "indiscriminately,"... the author of this little turd is using the exact phrase that almost every virus hoax and 'Net rumor has used since 1995! The pun is obvious: this is canned spam.
Hmmm ... let's think about this. A web page that starts a "Forwardable" chain mail. This could be a first!
From the ABA Know Your Customer 1994 Position page
In 1990, the American Bankers Association (ABA) completed its "Money Laundering Deterrence and Bank Secrecy Act Research Report" which found that the majority of respondents (86%) had a Know Your Customer policy. In addition, then Chairman of ABA's Money Laundering Task Force, Earl Hadlow, told a U.S. Senate Committee in 1989 that "[t]he emphasis must shift, in a logical and reasonable manner, from currency transaction tracking to know your customer in all facets of transactions. A reasonable approach to the problem can only be accomplished by the concentrated cooperation of the government and the financial services industry."
Wow. Mr. Hadlow made that statement ten years ago. More recently, banks were empowered to institute various KYC practices following the 1992 Annunzio-Wylie Money Laundering Act (Pub. L. No. 102-550), and many have done so. Since then, the Treasury Department has begun instituting regulations based on this Act. Since 1994, the ABA and other groups have lobbied for consideration of clear definitions and the need to "train all bank examiners as they interpret these new regulations." There appears to be no concerted opposition to KYC policies, partly because many of them are already in place, voluntarily. The biggest concern lately is that hysterical public opinion has eroded confidence in the banking industry.
Again, I urge you to read the FDIC and ABA pages on KYC policies; you are probably banking at an institution which already has such policies in place, so you might as well become familiar with them. On the other hand, I won't hesitate to caution you against using a web site CGI form to spam your friends with one-sided petitions. While it may very well seem harmless, I don't see how spamming your friends from the site is any different than spamming them with a "Forwardable."
When I received a copy of a "Forwardable" regarding advertising agencies' boycott of Black-oriented radio stations under "no Urban dictates," I immediately felt hostile and doubtful.
I was offended by the selfish assumption that "urban" could only mean "Black," rather than encompassing all minorities in the urban market sector. I was also struck by the naive belief that a short list of companies could reflect the widespread problems of racial stereotype and double-standards.
N.U.D. No Urban Dictate. Three words that essentially mean a company is not interested in the Black consumer. There are legitimate reasons for companies not using urban radio. It may be that Blacks don't index high in certain categories or that a company's marketing strategy is to target the Black consumer down the road after they have established a strong position in their primary target. But a NUD usually means that a company is not interested in the Black consumer....
[List of companies omitted.]
... Please forward this information on to any other consumer that you consider a friend and advise them to do likewise. Remember, we can't act wisely unless we are informed wisely.
The message (and the outdated web page that I believe it's plagiarized from) list several companies that allegedly utilize "no Urban dictates."
Apparently, this isn't really news. In an article printed in the New York Daily News on May 12, 1998, staff writer David Hinckley quoted from a 1997 internal memo from the Amcasts advertising sales firm that appeared to coach sales reps to shun black and ethnic-oriented media outlets:
Ad Biz Is Hit Over Bias Memo
The "prospects, not suspects" line couldn't have delivered a more potent rallying cry to activists, who then proceeded to string up Amcast and parent company Katz Radio Group by their, um, NUDs.
As reported in subsequent articles in the Daily News , Katz yielded to considerable activism by the Rev. Al Sharpton and others. Katz Group President Stuart Olds apologized publicly, calling the language of the memo "unacceptable and not reflective of the way we do business" (remember this, folks). Things seemed to be improving by June 03, 1998, when Olds attended a tête-à-tête which Rev. Sharpton characterized as "a good meeting. We all spoke frankly, no holds barred."
Someone decided to keep the heat on, though. On or about June 8, 1998, the web site Urban Insite posted a page about NUDs, including a list of companies provided by a "White general manager" of a "large market radio station." Urban Insite's webmaster told me that the intention was to encourage other radio stations to provide their own lists of companies who utilized NUDs, but no one else participated. The resounding lack of response convinced Urban Insite to later remove the page from the active site.
So, why has this started creeping around in e-mail again? Perhaps because the FCC recently confirmed what the NY Daily News articles indicated, and what Urban Insite was trying to publicize among radio stations. Namely, "no Urban dictates" and "minority discounts" are widely used in the radio advertising business.
In a January 13, 1999, press release, the FCC announced a study had found that:
I wonder what Stuart Olds has to say now?
According to the FCC study, When Being No.1 Is Not Enough: The Impact of Advertising Practices On Minority-Owned & Minority-Formatted Broadcast Stations, no Urban/Spanish dictate is advertising jargon for a policy of "prohibiting the placement of ads on stations that have an urban or Spanish format." (p. 25.) It may be specific to the agency, or it may be specified by the client.
The FCC study suggests several biases that may contribute to NUDs:
How do these biases add up? Here's an example of a probable NUD in action:
Being No.1 Is Not Enough
As FCC Chairman William E. Kennard said to The American Advertising Federation in New York on February 22, 1999:
"... The American way has always been that if you work hard, if you are the best, you will be fairly rewarded. In radio, this means that if you have more listeners, you will have more advertising dollars. Sadly, the FCC found that this is not the case for minority broadcasters.
"The use of minority discounts and "no urban/Spanish dictates" has had a significant effect on minority broadcasters' bottom lines. In fact, the minority broadcasters interviewed in our study estimate that these practices reduce their revenues by as much as two-thirds."
What does this all mean? Well, to focus explicitly on the e-mail "Forwardable," the fact that policies like this are common in radio advertising, and may be utilized in other media markets, has clearly been documented. But that the companies that you may find listed in any e-mail version of this announcement utilize NUDs has to my knowledge not been documented, or in any way corroborated.
Still, I agree with Bill Kennard: "[It] is rare that you come across an issue -- one that affects us all -- and you can't believe that no one has done anything about it." Well, I guess I can't. Someone's spamming some e-mail about it.
As I have discussed previously in "Hoax du Jour," Rob Rosenberger's theory of The False Authority Syndrome applies here. In whom do you assign credibility on the Internet? The web sites that I've linked to in this article, or the anonymous writers who've spammed the Internet with their "Forwardable" message? Even if you receive a message from a trusted friend or family member, is this someone whom you trust to vouch for the accuracy of the forwarded warning?
Readers of this column often confess to me that they're sick and tired of receiving these warnings from their acquaintances. (See the updated e-v-mail page for examples.) Can you wonder the strain that suspicion of the False Authority Syndrome puts on friendship? Calling Mom or Dad or your girlfriend a liar must be harder than simply quietly accepting the weekly sharing of these 'Net rumors. But ... I have to wonder ... just how sound is a relationship, any relationship, that tolerates doubt or dishonesty, or even stupidity?
When you receive a "Forwardable," like those I've used as examples above, consider whom you've received it from, and what that person's expertise is. Someone whom you trust as a friend may not be the best source of information about food additives, Federal banking regulations or the plight of people living on the other side of the planet. It's best, perhaps, to think globally,... but click locally. And keep the spam to yourself.
(Many, many readers provided samples and clues that contributed to this column. You know who you are, so I'll thank you as a group. Thanks, as always, to Barbara, David and Rob for great sites to lean on in times of need.)