understanding email chain letters

the other day i received an email from a friend. it started with the ominous “please read and pass on”. immediately my antennae went up; in my experience, 95% of such emails turn out to be hoaxes.

the friend of mine who passed the email on to me is an ex teacher, has an excellent education, and is well read. why, i wondered, did he fall for this hoax?

here are a few excerpts of that particular chain letter:

Outrage in South Africa … Last week a 3 year old girl was beaten and raped … The man responsible was released … If you are too busy to read this then … The Government is planning to close the child protection unit and this is a petition against it … You may have already heard that there’s a myth in South Africa that
having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS … Recently in Cape Town, a 9-month-old baby was raped by 6 men. Please think about that for a moment … Please don’t be complacent, do something … You can make a difference …

who in their right mind would not be outraged against something horrible like this? what feeling person would just be complacent and yawn and say, “naw, i’m too busy”? who among the well educated does not want to stop and think and bust awful myths like the one discussed in this letter? who wouldn’t want to make a difference here?

feelings like the outrage and compassion that are elicited by this letter create a tension in our emotional make-up. our first reaction is to break that tension. this urge to break that tension, to re-establish our emotional balance, drives us to run to the nearest exit, so to say.

and lo! here it is! we are outraged and feel compassionate and need to do something about it and right here, we can do something! we can sign a petition, send on the email, just with a few keystrokes or clicks and right away, we can regain our emotional equilibrium and feel better. phew.

this explains why an otherwise very rational person can easily fall prey to such chain letters.

having seen many such letters, and having made it one of my missions to dispel urban myths, my personal outrage went in another direction. i was irritated by the letter’s play on people’s noble emotions, and by its use of very real problems to … well, i don’t even know what the aim of the letter is.

child rape does happen in south africa (and in other parts of the world, including canada), and we do need to do something about it. but, for heaven’s sake, let’s not just run to the nearest exit to rid ourselves of uncomfortable feelings, let’s stop and think.

my personal solution to this was to talk to an acquaintance from south africa and ask him to give me some background on charities that work. he put me in contact with someone here in vancouver who is involved with education without borders.

i chose to donate there, through canada helps. other possibilities are nelson mandela’s children’s fund or world vision.

you can find more information on this particular petition (and hoax) here and on internet petitions in general here.

if you want to learn more about internet urban legends and hoaxes, here are a few good sites:

university of california at berkeley urban legends site
evaluating internet information
isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

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