Thursday, December 17, 2009

Propaganda: The Forwarded Email

I get quite a lot of forwarded emails (or chain-mails) with a message of one of these types: Anti-moslem, anti-global warming, anti-gun control. There may be a lot more than just these subjects, but these are the ones I get the most. I find it hard to ignore emails that come from friends or relatives, but I would like to know what to do about the ones that I don't agree with, which is about 99% of them.

For a while, I had the crazy thought of replying with a form email something like this:

Dear _____,
Thank you for your recent email informing me that (a) Global warming is a hoax (b) God is real (c) Moslems are taking over the world (d) the government is coming for my guns. I will of course pass it along unverified to everyone in my contact list.
Yours truly etc. etc.

Forwarding emails is a relatively new propaganda technique. It works like this. Someone creates an email that has some arguments to persuade people to (a) believe a certain point of view (b) forward this email to everyone on their mailing list. So the original sender starts emailing to everyone they know, in hopes that it eventually multiplies to millions of copies. If it is successful, the email can replicate itself to almost everyone on the Internet. If not, well, it costs nothing to try again, using more powerful arguments.

The spread of these chain mails is quick, cheap, and almost effortless. Chain mails are designed to spread ideas. Powerful arguments are used to convince the readers that not only should they believe, but they can help the cause by forwarding the email. There is an additional convincing factor, that the email was first (presumably) sent to you by a friend or relative that you trust.

It is impossible to stop these chain mails from spreading once they get in the email pipeline. They continue to circulate even if they are discredited, continually winning over new converts along the way. Some of the tactics I have seen border on genius. For example, I have tried to tell friends and relatives to please check on the truthfulness of these emails on before forwarding them to me. Most do not have the time, of course, but some actually try to. I finally got a brilliant forwarded email which came pre-checked by Snopes. In the email, was the statement "Verified by Snopes" with a hot link to right there to click on! Of course I clicked on it, and according to snopes this particular email was actually fake. A clever propaganda trick all the same, as apparently most people never click on the link.

In some cases, the forwarded mail is falsely attributed to some public figure we know and trust, such as George Carlin, Al Gore, or Andy Rooney of 60 minutes. There is no way the public figure can put a stop to the email, once launched. It can continue to circulate circulate unchecked for years. I received one email that had been circulating for seven years.

It's a problem for me that my email address gets circulated along with the original forwarded email. That allows other spammers to get hold of my email address. I guess that must be all part of the success of this tactic.

In many cases I have tried to reply to my friends, commenting on the inaccuracies, citing websites such as Snopes, or Wikipedia. Although I sometimes get ignored or rebutted with more new stuff, thankfully some people do become aware of this practice and stop forwarding these misleading emails.

Picture: Me, enjoying the sunshine at Port Stanley. With photoshopped bullhorn person for company.


  1. It's even more 'effective' when one of these 'forward to everyone you know' emails is posted to a discussion group.

    Despite my efforts over the years at discouraging members of my discussion groups not to forward these stoopid things (including referring them to, &c.) some people simply cannot resist forwarding things that 'seem' really important.

    Some things, like 'the latest' virus or trojan 'scare' seem to be irresistible. Well, heaven help you if you need to rely on forwarded emails to protect yourself against viruses!

    Or those, 'Warning! This may happen to you' emails pointing out changes in traffic laws that were enacted years ago.

    Or, difficult to believe, that Microsoft giveaway hoax keeps popping up.

    Ah, well ... I suppose it's a small price to pay for the benefits of being part of the online generation ;-)

  2. It's strange that you wrote about this recently too! Thanks for linking me to your post!