Spam and Chain Mail: Urban Legends

  1. Computer Virus Myths
  2. Spam and Chain Mail

Urban legends go beyond computers into everyday life. If you believe in urban legends you can be killed for warning other motorists that their headlights are off3, wake up in a foreign hotel with one kidney missing4, or grow cockroaches in your cheeks5. You can save Big Bird6, or convince the Taliban to end repression against women7, simply by forwarding an e-mail message.

Urban Legends: Jane Fonda

One of the more recent items has to do with Jane Fonda’s actions in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.1 Not only does it name specific actions, but it names specific, and real, names. But anyone who performs basic research before forwarding the message will discover that none of the stories that both involve real names and are directly attached to Fonda are true.

Looks like Hanoi Jane may be honored as one of the "100 Women of the Century". JANE FONDA remembered? Unfortunately many have forgotten and still countless others have never known how Ms. Fonda betrayed not only the idea of our "country" but the men who served and sacrificed during Vietnam. There are few things I have strong visceral reactions to, but Jane Fonda's participation in what I believe to be blatant treason, is one of them. Part of my conviction comes from exposure to those who suffered her attentions.

It then goes on to describe some very specific events. There are two things to be worried about in this message. The most obvious is that whoever wrote it has some clear biases. The less obvious is that the “100 Women of the Century” were aired in April 1999, which means that this message has been floating around on the net, getting sent from user to user with all the possibility for change which that brings, for even longer.

Don’t look to the newspapers for help: this has been reported on at least twice, having traveled to a reporter’s e-mail inbox and being treated in the same manner as any other information coming down the wire. You’ll only find the truth about this message if you head back to the Internet and do a little research of your own.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this one is that it was deliberately malicious not only to Jane Fonda, whom the poster apparently has no liking for, but also to the named POW’s. The POW’s names are real. And the basic notion that Fonda did generally horrible things during Vietnam make it easier to believe these specific things. But:

A good cause is never well-served by lies, and that's how all of the ex-POWs I spoke to or corresponded with about the falsehoods in this message felt. Paul Galanti said: "None of us are members of the Jane Fonda Fan Club, but these fabrications are something she just did not do."2

Forwarding on information like this might hurt Jane Fonda in the short run, but it only hurts POWs in the long run.

Gordon Sinclair

This is a mostly harmless message, and in fact is pretty much all true.1 Which makes it all the more odd that it has been slightly modified to hide its true source. You may have received it under the subject “now HERE'S the beauty of America...”. The commentary before the essay decries that this was recently broadcast (my version says 12/99) but has received no attention, even though it was a remarkable piece. And it’s true, it is a remarkable editorial. Written in 1973, by a person who died in 1984, in response to the near bankruptcy of the American Red Cross, the growing Watergate scandal, and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Some of more blatant anachronisms, such as the gas shortage, were removed. Oddly, others remained, such as the notion of draft dodgers, still hiding out in Canada and “getting American dollars from ma and pa at home”. At what, age fifty? This was a remarkable editorial when written, and it received fairly massive airplay in the United States. But it was never hidden, and while there are parallels, it wasn’t written to apply to American adventurism abroad in 1999, nor to the scandals of the current administration.

These sort of “white lie” chain mails are at the other end of the spectrum from the “big lie” spams such as the Fonda chain mail. In my opinion, both are dangerous; the white lie spam is more insidious, and thus may last longer than the more easily uncovered big lie.

Note that there doesn’t necessarily have to be any actual lying involved in the “white lie”. Unlike the Fonda mailing, for which someone must have made up some fairly egregious lies, it’s easy to think of a simple chain of mailings where no one person lies, but the end result is just a little off kilter.

1. One person runs across Gordon Sinclair’s essay, likes it, and tries to update it for modern times. They send it out to a few friends, along with the note, “I found this at a Canadian web page, and I liked it a lot. I’ve modified it a bit to take out the seventies-isms.”

2. One of their friends also likes it, and copies the modified essay out of the e-mail message. Note that the essay now no longer contains the note that it’s been modified. They say “I just got this from a friend of mine who found it in Canada.”

3. One of person number two’s friends mails it on with the note “this was aired in 12/99”, taking the date of the previously forwarded message as the date of airing.

4. Finally, someone looks at this essay, thinks it’s wonderful (which it is) and wonders why the heck they haven’t seen it before. Why hasn’t it been spread across the United States? Of course, it was, but back in 1973, and person number four wasn’t even born in 1973.

At no step is there a true lie. There are a few jumps in logic, but nothing you could call someone a liar over. The point is not that sometimes people lie, or make mistakes, but simply that you should know your sources. Without knowing where a statement came from, it is difficult to judge it’s validity simply by looking at the text. You either need to research the facts stated within, or research the source of those facts.

  1. Computer Virus Myths
  2. Spam and Chain Mail