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by Jan Harold Brunvand
August 29, 1999
Regular readers of this page have been more than generous in sending me examples of the nonsense that's filling their mail boxes. This summer, it's been a virtual flood. I'm grateful to the many readers (too many to name) who've provided me with a sampling of the detritus that's floating about.
In the weeks following the uber-crisis of "Melissa's" assault on Exchange servers of the world, Internet users have been fed a truck-full of scare stories both old and new, useless petitions, and new hoaxes about nonexistent giveaways and legislation. Whoever's out there breeding and spreading the "misinformation virus" must be having one hell of a good laugh. I hope so, otherwise hoax-mongering is undeniably a COMPLETE waste of time.
I will try to keep the e-mail account below active for as long as possible, but I've already received some threats, so I don't know if I can keep it open.
The hoax contains a virtual glossary of convincing features from other 'Net rumors, from un-substantiated references to news accounts, to claims that the conspiracy is covering up any enforcement efforts, and prophesying that any written inquiries to supermarket chains will result in denials. I checked out a few references for "aspartate dehydrogenase," and they didn't match the hoax's description. With almost artful literary ability, this e-mail hoax banished any skepticism with talismans of classic conspiracy theory babble.
C'MON, do you REALLY believe that supermarkets are killing young children to sell a few cans of soda pop?
Another medical hoax claimed that antiperspirant was known to cause cancer. "Uh, huh," as an aspartame foe wrote me.
An anonymous tipster wanted to give you handy advice on averting a heart attack, should your heart happen to stop while reading your e-mail. No kidding. The method, which involves coughing, turned out to be used only under the supervision of medical professionals, and in very rare circumstances. In fact, it can be DANGEROUS. Don't try this at the local Sizzler restaurant and expect results. Check out David Emery's column on About.com, or Barbarba Mikkelson's piece on snopes.com, for the details.
The aura of a Big, Nasty Plot against us little folk lurked behind many of the 'Net rumors that I've seen. The more popular consumer product health scares ("Toxic Tampons," "Sodium Laureth Sulfate," "Zinc chloride in fabric cleaners," "DMSO") justify themselves, and a lack of corroborating information in the mainstream news, by way of asserting -- without any proof, mind you -- that there is a big, all-powerful conspiracy to hide the truth. Why aren't there any news stories? Well, Big Media is in cahoots with Big Business and Big Government, of course.
Big Government was the focus of a recent rumor that Social Security Numbers are assigned according to race. Bless her heart, Barbara Mikkelson sifted through the mess of government documentation of how numbers are assigned. Believe me (believe Barbara), racial background has nothing to do with it. I recommend that you read her discussion on http://www.snopes.com.
In an enormously popular hoax, a (non-existent) law firm was spreading the word about a (non-existent) Congressional bill sponsored by a (all together now, "non-existent") Congressman "Schnell" to levy a 5¢ e-mail surcharge to benefit the United States Postal Service. The hoax claimed that THE WASHINGTONIAN published an editorial in favor of the bill, which the magazine denies. A couple of readers went so far as to investigate the legal firm (no such firm, no such address, so I'm told), and to look up the bill ("602P"), which also turned out to be false. Simply scrounging around on the USPS web site for 2 minutes led me to their announcement disputing the whole thing (May 21, 1999). If you still doubt, you can search the Library of Congress for Bill 602P yourself (http://thomas.loc.gov/). I think you'll find that our Congress doesn't number bills like this. (A variant of this hoax floated around Canada for a brief visit.)
See the Update below for more information.
Moving to the private sector, I reviewed a hoax that claimed that the CEO of Procter & Gamble had admitted on a daytime talk show that he was an active member of the Church of Satan, oh my. Other rumors claimed that the company's profits funded satanic activities. If this sounds familiar, it should -- P&G have the target of "satan-affiliated" gossip, usually using their trademark as clear evidence. I think that the classic urban legend (UL) about the P&G logo has simply jumped online, incorporated the new cyberban legend hallmark reference to a trendy daytime or evening talk show or news magazine (20/20, et al), and taken flight. To their credit, P&G has an excellent page refuting all the rumors and stories. The page also offers tidbits about the 15 or so lawsuits that the company has filed (and won) against competitors who were shown to be using the rumors as a business tactic.
Granted, if you're a conspiracy nut, all the reason and logic and denials in the world will never convince you.
Free M&Ms. Forward the e-mail, and get a free case of candy. This one was just a retelling of the Bill Gates and Disney e-mail tracking hoaxes. There is no "tracking device" that can trace an e-mail's path as people forward the message to their friends. An immediate tip-off to this story, which many readers noticed, was that M&Ms are not made by Hershey, but the e-mail specifically refers to "Hershey, Pennsylvania." (Actually, the little candies that "melt in your mouth, not in your hand" were developed by the Mars family during WWII to compete with Hershey chocolate bars for a contract to supply our troops,... but that's another story.)
Maybe you were enthused about the Miller Brewing Company's offer of free beer? I would be, too ... until I looked at their web site, and found the press release denying the hoax. Sound familiar? Of course, you had to forward the e-mail get some free beer. Here's another vastly popular hoax:
Intel and AOL are now discussing a merger which would make them the largest Internet company and in an effort make sure that AOL remains the most widely used program, Intel and AOL are running an e-mail beta test.
Other hoaxes are following the same path. Free Gap clothes. Free A&F clothes. Free cash from Microsoft. Free cash from banks. Free "video clips" on your computer. Free computers. The list goes on.... Folks, the only thing you may get from forwarding that e-mail "to everyone you know" ... is a rowdy complaint from some of your friends.
Really, the only ingredient that's needed to propel these stories is something that is becoming known as the "gullibility virus." These rumors and hoaxes would stop dead in their tracks were it not for a complete lack of skepticism on the part of the Internet users who read them, and forward them on without once questioning the negative impact of doing so. Some readers have complained to me that they have received as many as 3 or more copies of the SAME RUMOR in a single week. It takes time to check them on their "favorite hoax-busting sites." Sure it does. But why bother? Why not just delete the mail, and stop it cold?
Some conjecture that life has become so fast-paced, there's no time left to write correspondence of real value. The alternative? Keeping in touch by forwarding on chain mail and 'Net rumors.
Why do they continue to propagate as e-mail rumors? When stories like this appear without any kind of authoritative references or corroboration, I can't even be bothered to finish reading them. This may be the case with those who forward them.... If it looks valid, why not send it to everyone we know? The truth is, everyone loves a story. And it's so easy to preface any forwarded e-mail rumor with the common disclaimer, "I don't know if this is true, but it's better to be safe than sorry, right?"
This was the case with "Penny Robinson" (not her real name), who forwarded the "Toxic Tampon" hoax. She didn't take any time to research the facts, but presumed that anyone reading the hoax (with her professional sigline from the American Chemical Society) would dig into the facts for themselves. Fat chance, Penny. She was inundated with e-mails from people asking her to confirm the facts for them, and finally had to shut down the e-mail address. "Sarabrande," the guileless young lady who started a petition about the plight of women in Afghanistan, also experienced the calamity of Internet chain mail. Her mail box was flooded with inquiries, to the extent that her university computer administrators shut down her address. Permanently.
The same fate befell the chump who caught the "Tina Strongman" pay phone hoax early in its distribution. According to David Emery, "Not Tina" found that the supposed e-mail address for the "Operator for 911" was bogus, and hit upon a great idea: let's create the address. So "firstname.lastname@example.org" became real, and "Not Tina" found out just how many netizens would write to the address to test the story. After a few days, "Not Tina" apparently gave up answering mail.
As I have in the past, I have to ask the obvious question: can you afford this? Is that bogus warning really worth forwarding to your friends and relatives?
P.S.: Due to runaway spam to my domain, I've had to change several e-mail addresses. Please use the MAILTO links provided on these pages, and refrain from using addresses that you might have bookmarked previously. Thanks.
October 9, 2000
Thank the NY Times newspaper for this hilarious story (note: you may have to register online with the NYTIMES.COM site to read it). U.S. Senate candidate Hilary Clinton apparently fell for the Bill 602-P E-mail surcharge hoax during a recent debate. No wait, there's more: her opponent, Representative Rick Lazio also fell for it. No wait, there's more: the moderator, Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV also didn't know the bill is a hoax! (One of her staffers made the confession.) The fictitious "Congressman Schnell," alleged author of the non-existant bill, was of course unavailable for comment. Thanks to MSNBC reporter Bob Sullivan and Vmyths.com editor Rob Rosenberger for catching this one.