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Identifying Hoaxes: How to Tackle Them

By Charles Hopkins Published 06/2/2006 | Internet

 If you just forwarded that mail to sixty-five friends and relatives, asking them to check their seats thoroughly before they sit down in the theater, because of this sudden outbreak of HIV-infected needles found growing out of them, then congratulations! For you have become a member of the majority group of internet users, having fallen victim to an email hoax. There does not exist a gang of diseased criminals going around the country planting needles steeped in their own blood.

Similarly, there is no flesh-eating banana, Tommy Hilfiger is not a racist, your friends and family are not at risk from a particularly lethal type of rat urine, an extremely poisonous South American spider has not infested all the toilet seats in the country, you don't need to tap the mirror with you finger in every public toilet you enter, etc. We could go on for hours on that theme. But the substance is that the continued existence or well-being of the world at large does not depend on your forwarding an email.

What are email hoaxes all about? Why do they exist? Who creates them in the first place?

The whole email hoax system preys upon the paranoiac tendencies of modern urban human beings, and leverages the unconscious fear that something may go horribly wrong at any moment. We feel we aren't doing enough to justify our existence in the world, so an email of this type pokes your conscience and urges you to do something about what is happening to the world. It depends on our appetite for sensational news.

So some of the originators of email hoaxes are actually normal people, who have heard and believed some of the fantastic nightmares that have become a part of modern urban legends, and wrote that email out of a genuine desire to protect the people they knew from horrible deaths, or to allow them to win fabulous prizes through the simple expedient of propagating the email further.

But not so all of them. The majority of email hoaxers are pranksters, who simply want to sit back and enjoy the frenzy they have unleashed upon the internet. They are usually compensating for some hidden sense of inadequacy and ineffectiveness, some notion that they aren't really up to what the world demands of them. So when they see that a simple piece of text they wrote has managed to set so many email users all around the world in a flurry, they are amused and flattered, and perhaps some of this sense of inferiority is washed out of their system. It's the same kind of psychological mechanism that prompts many weak national leaders to unnecessarily wage war against other peoples and countries, under a thousand invented excuses.

How can you detect an email hoax? Well, it's easy. Absolutely any email that asks to be forwarded to other people (unless it contains a personal message for you and a group of other closely related people mentioned by name) is a hoax. Delete it from you inbox and forget about it. Don't worry, the world will not come to an end.

If you want to be extra sure about the falsity of the message, just visit one of the many sites that contain information about urban legends.