Chain letters with myths, hoaxes, and ``urban legends'' propagate on the internet very often and very fast. A typical hoax is a message warning about a bogus virus, or one asking to propagate a message in exchange from money from Bill Gates. (I suspect some of those may only serve to harvest valid email messages!)
One of the most successful examples is the Jessica Mydek story. After getting several copies of the story of the cancer patient whose dying wish was for people to forward a message so that generous corporations would contribute to cancer research, I sent the message below trying to explain how I decided it was a hoax.
An obvious lesson is that one should be careful about what one reads
A broader lesson is that each individual must learn to form opinions from sources which may or may not be reliable, but generally should be treated as biased. This has always been the case; with the weakening of the monopoly of news generation and delivery that the WWW and Internet represent, it has become more apparent.
Want to learn more? Visit Rosenberger's page on myths, and make sure to check his credentials.
Here is my contact info if you want to send
me any comments.
Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 From: Cris Pedregal Martin Subject: slaying a myth - be careful what you send and read. Greetings - just a note to clarify the Jessica Mydek story -- Cris *Summary* This chain letter is unrelated to the American Cancer Society (see http://www.cancer.org/letter.html, or read the ACS's press release below). There's no evidence that Jessica Mydek even exists. [If you want to forward this message to others, I only ask that you send the ENTIRE message - context is important.] The rest of this note contains 1- a brief comment on internet myths and misinformation 2- what tipped me off about this particular message 3- excerpt of the Mydek message 4- The American Cancer Society's press release - rebuttal. 5- Signature information so you know who sent you this :-> ... 1 - No one should feel bad about believing or propagating this story (and especially since it purports to support cancer research), but it seems to be simply false (ACS calls it "fraudulent"). Misattributions are also common; recently a nice piece circulated as Kurt Vonnegut's - the 1997 MIT graduation address. I checked and found that MIT's address was given by someone else; a broader search showed that Vonnegut had only given one or two graduation addresses in his life, none at MIT. Further correspondence with the maintainer of the Vonnegut Homepage yielded Vonnegut's comment (he was flattered, but the piece wasn't his!) - he had received a copy in his own email! (Mea culpa: I had forwarded the message to a bunch of friends before checking it, then had some doubts, then sent a correction, and of course "si non e vero e ben trovato" - if not true, it's well told, applied in this case...) Here is the full explanation. With the spread of the WWW and Internet, there is a blurring of what constitutes "authoritative" news - for example, established media outlets are biased enough and often plain wrong as it is, but they have a certain professional mandate to do source-checking. With these new media, we as readers, and especially as propagators, have more of a burden to fact-check within reason. In the case at hand, it simply took visiting the American Cancer Society's webpage and doing a search on "Mydek". In particular, notice that this message appears to have been forwarded by an academic (a Psychology professor) and to/by other highly educated scientists; this is a double lesson. For the receivers, you can't trust a message even if it comes from someone who would think twice before making unsubstantiated claims in her/his own discipline, before peers. For the senders/forwarders, be careful what you forward, as your signature (i.e., your return email address) signifies your authority, and your reputation gets diluted. I am not advocating silence, but in cases like this, when it took me under a minute to find out the rebuttal by the ACS, there's little excuse for not fact checking.... 2- To encourage people to become more internet-literate, here's what made me suspicious about this message -- a) The AOL address for the American Cancer Society. An organization this size probably has its own domain (as it turns out, it's cancer.org), and its own webspace, not just a single address on AOL. b) The three-cent-per-forwardee thing. Even if email seems to be free, there is much more to be gained by having people write an email say to their congressperson asking for increased cancer research funding. Or to their favorite corporation, asking them to contribute more. At 3 cents a pop, the only value I can see for this is as a way to collect valid email addresses to sell to spammers (junk emailers) (which may well be the reason behind this letter). c) The "send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org" part - legitimate chain letters, e.g., to protest human rights violations, or to demand the release of a prisoner of conscience, usually have - a well identified source address - a numbered list to which one appends oneself, with the request that the list be forwarded to the source every, say, 100 names are added (to make the processing reasonable). d) The "dying wish" part seems to be common theme on these things (visit http://www.urbanlegends.com for more info). Why was this chain started? I don't know; perhaps to collect email addresses, perhaps simply as a prank/experiment (to see how far/fast it propagates) ... for theories, start at www.urbanlegends.com. 3) Excerpt of the message as I received it (addresses removed)-- On Sun, 30 Nov 1997, E.I.T. forwarded the message excerpted below; [...] indicates text I elided... | >From: "G. P." | >Cc: email@example.com | >Date: Sat, 29 Nov 1997 | > | >Please help this little girl get her wish. [...] | >> > *************************************************** | >> > Jessica Mydek is seven years old and is suffering from an [...] | >> > Jean Ann Linney, Ph.D. | >> > Professor and Department Chair | >> > Department of Psychology | >G.P.
4 - The American Cancer Society's comment on Jessica Mydek's story The text between "<<" and ">>" is excerpted from http://www.cancer.org/letter.html << Subject: American Cancer Society: Fraudulent Jessica Mydek Chain Letter The American Cancer Society is greatly disturbed by reports of a fraudulent chain letter circulating on the internet which lists the American Cancer Society as a "corporate sponsor" but which has in no way been endorsed by the American Cancer Society. There are several variations of this letter in circulation, including one which has a picture of "Tickle Me Elmo" and one that is essentially a paraphrase of the letter below. The text of the original message reads as follows: > > LITTLE JESSICA MYDEK IS SEVEN YEARS OLD AND IS SUFFERING FROM [...] > IF THERE ARE ANY QUESTIONS, SEND THEM TO THE AMERICAN CANCER > SOCIETY AT ACS@AOL.COM As far as the American Cancer Society can determine, the story of Jessica Mydek is completely unsubstantiated. No fundraising efforts are being made by the American Cancer Society using chain letters of any kind. Furthermore, the email address ACS@AOL.COM is inactive. Any messages to the American Cancer Society should be instead sent through the American Cancer Society website at http://www.cancer.org. This particular chain letter with its heartbreaking story appears to have struck an emotional chord with online users. Although we are very concerned that the American Cancer Society's name has been used to manipulate the online public, we applaud the good intentions of all who participated in this letter. We are pleased to note that there are so many caring individuals out there and hope that they will find another way to support cancer research. Jessica Mydek's story, whether true or false, is representative of that of many cancer patients who benefit daily from the efforts of legitimate cancer organizations nationwide. >> 5 - Signature info -- who sent you this, anyway?? Cris Pedregal Martin http://www-ccs.cs.umass.edu/cris