Myths on Internet (caveat lector?) - The Jessica Mydek story

Stories are one of the most wonderful manifestations of culture, and the dynamics of narrative is not bounded by a single `truth' - stories are good regardless of that, as ascertained by the old phrase `si non e vero, e ben trovato' - roughly, `it may not be true, but it's well told/crafted.'   From a social and political viewpoint, however, it is often relevant to establish veracity;  propaganda, for example, is used to influence people often against their own judgment and interests.

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 and forwards.
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

This chain letter is unrelated to the American Cancer Society 
(see, 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, 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
 c) The "send a copy to" 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 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 

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:
 | >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

 << 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:
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  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