Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.
Is it my imagination or has the number of urban legend emails increased lately? I’ve pretty much eliminated the emails touting products to enhance a body part I don’t have and am working on getting the Nigerians to stop telling me they have a million dollars for me if I’ll just send them some money first.
We don’t discuss politics or religion on this blog, and I won’t break the pattern. But suffice to say most of the annoying emails I’ve been receiving involve one or the other or both.
Why do people pass these on? What gives them such credibility that intelligent folks feel the urge to click the “Forward” button and send it further into cyberspace?
I did a little research and learned that these type of emails generally play on general fears such as harm to the family or community. Many times they also challenge religious beliefs or attempt to portray someone or something in an unpatriotic light. The recipient reacts emotionally, and while most folks are too smart to fall for a typical April Fool’s joke, they’ll forward an urban legend because they want to be helpful. I mean, wouldn’t you want to keep your friends’ kids and dogs safe from a deadly Swiffer? * Of course, every once in a while one of these emails is true and heaven forbid we fail to inform everyone we know that boxes of aluminum foil usually have lock tabs on the end to hold the roll in place. **
When the email comes from a friend or family member, most people take it at face value. That extends some degree of credibility when they in turn forward it to more family and friends. And thus the viral quality of the legend begins.
Several tip-offs that the email from Aunt Tilly might be an urban legend are that the originator is usually a friend of a friend, the message tugs at your emotions (fear, empathy, religion, politics, family or country) and you are urged to pass the message on to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
If the email you received this morning contains any of the clues above, you may want to hop over to my favorite urban legend buster website and check it out. Snopes.com has been around since 1995 and is generally considered to be the best source for the truth. A quick search from their home page will quickly let you know that Madalyn Murray O’Hair not only hasn’t been granted a hearing by the FCC to stop religious programming, but that she’s probably been dead since she disappeared in 1995 though her body wasn't found until 2001. This particular urban legend has been around on the Internet since at least 1996 and as early as 1975 the FCC was receiving letters from concerned citizens. Sadly it seems to resurface every few years thanks to folks who don't check their facts.
You can also find out that the email with the online petition you’re to forward to Washington once it gets 1000 signatures is a waste of time. Petitions must contain real signatures to be valid. Proctor & Gamble’s logo is not satanic, In God We Trust does appear on the new dollar coins and Nike won’t send you a free pair of shoes in exchange for your old ones. California law does not require citizens to obtain a hunting license in order to set mouse traps in their homes, "Puff the Magic Dragon" isn't a song about marijuana and the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, a favorite amongst the Playfriends, does not contain formaldehyde. And last but certainly not least, Microsoft won't send you a check for forwarding an email.
So the next time you receive an email with questionable content and a request to forward it, please check Snopes and act responsibly.
What’s YOUR email pet peeve?
P.S. Even the title of my blog is an urban legend. Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday on the popular television series Dragnet never said “Just the facts, ma’am” when questioning female witnesses. What he usually said was “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” You can read the whole story at – where else? – Snopes!
* Swiffer myth debunked
** A nifty tip about aluminum foil