E-mail viruses: The message is the virus!
by Rich Pasco
“Reposting without checking accuracy is like sharing gossip
you heard without checking to see if it is true.” — Brad Forbes
Would you deliberately forward a virus to all your friends? “Of
course not,” you say? Well, many people do that when they
unthinkingly follow the instructions in an important-sounding e-mail
message that says “forward to everyone you know.”
One definition of a virus is “That which tricks its host
into making more copies of itself.” This can be as true of an
e-mail message as it can of a computer program or a biological virus.
I call an e-mail message with this effect an e-mail virus.
Fortunately, an e-mail virus is easy to spot:
If you receive such a message and cannot verify its truth, please do
not aid in its propagation, even if you trust the person who sent it to
you. Remember, he too may have been duped. If you forward it because
“it just might be true” then you waste a lot of people's time and
possibly embarrass yourself by
demonstrating your gullibility.
- Says “forward to everyone you know”
or “this is really true” or similar.
- Has an urgent-sounding warning, a heart-wrenching plea, an
offer of something for nothing, or a heart-warming story.
- Has technical-sounding language with details glossed over.
- Gives no reference to contact the original author for more
information (phone number, e-mail address, etc.)
- Seeks credibility by naming known institutions, publications, etc.,
but lacks details (contact persons, publication dates, web pages).
- Uses terms like “yesterday” or “this week” in
an un-dated message.
- Promises you good luck if you forward it, or threatens bad luck
if you don't.
The problem is, when we get urgent-sounding e-mail
messages from people we trust, we tend to trust the e-mail without
considering that they too may have been taken in by misinformation
or be victims of malware.
Example of a Typical E-Mail Virus: The Pepsi-AIDS Warning
At the right is an example of an e-mail virus which was forwarded to me
on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 by a well-meaning but misinformed friend. I added the
stamp “Hoax!” before posting it here. It exhibits all seven of the
warning flags enumerated above, and doesn't even ring true because the AIDS
virus is quite fragile and cannot transmitted this way.
The go-to hoax-debunking site Snopes declared this one false on
July 15, 2011
and yet it has been going around, complete with the word “yesterday,” almost eight years since then!
I often receive warning messages which read like this:
Urgent! If you receive a message with a heading saying ________ do not open it,
because it is a virus which will destroy your computer. Please forward this warning
to everyone in your contact list!
This is dangerous in several ways. Not only does it waste your and your contacts' time
by inducing you and them to forward a false warning, it also falsely suggests that one can detect a computer virus by the title
of the message which carries it. It might give receipiends a false sense of security
about other messages by leading them to think, “Well, the title wasn't one of those, so it must be safe to open.”
Regardless of the title, you should always practice “safe computing.”
Remember, to open any executable
file (whether received as an e-mail attachment, web link, or otherwise) means
to surrender complete control of your computer system to its distant
(and unknown) author. Even if you know and trust the person who
apparently sent it to you, please consider that his e-mail account
may be under the control of malicious software (malware).
Here's what I do whenever I receive an incredible picture. I don't believe the caption
attributed to it. Instead: I right-click on it and choose either
“Copy Image Location.” (if it's on the web) or “Save Image As”
(if it's in an e-mail). Then I go to
Google Images and click on the camera icon to choose “Search by Image.”
I either paste the URL into the search box or upload the image I just saved and, Voila!
The whole history of the photo appears before my eyes.
My best medical advice comes from consultation with my doctor, and reading articles in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Yet many people get theirs from “forward-to-eveyone-you-know” viral posts forwarded by their friends,
and then compound the problem by forwarding them again without fact checking. As one example, there is a persistent
e-mail virus claiming magical health benefits of drinking water at certain times of the day.
- Does Drinking Water at Certain Times Of The Day Maximize Its Health Benefits? by Brett M. Christensen, Hoax-Slayer, May 19, 2018
- Heart Attacks and Water, Snopes, October 18. 2010 (updated January 1, 2018)
- Mythbusters: Will Drinking Water Help With...? by Doris Chung, The Whole U, University of Washington, September 17, 2014
- I Read It Online: Heart attacks & water by Sandra Jordan, St. Louis American, February 12, 2014
- What Bad Advice Did This Heart Attack Survivor Get? by Ann Brenoff, Huffington Post, September 24, 2013
- Drinking Water Before Meals, Baths and Bed Improves Health - Facebook Rumour, That's Nonsense, June 25, 2013
Facebook “Copy-and-Paste” Instructions
The advent of social-networking giant Facebook has created a platform
where viruses are rampant. Most have little do with the kind of computer virus that many people fear most
(an executable program that damages your computer). However, messages which tell
you to copy-and-paste them are themselves a kind of virus in the broader sense defined as “that which tricks its victims into reproducing itself.”
I often say, “If a message tells you to forward itself, that is a red flag that it is probably false. And if it tells you how to forward it, that guarantees that it is false.”
See more about copy-and-paste instructions.
Even if an item sounds plausible, and even if you agree with its spirit, and even if it says “please share”
or “please forward,” or “please copy and paste” you still should not share or forward or copy-and-paste
it without first doing some independent research to
confirm that the assumptions it makes are still true (if they ever were). Failing to do that research, and forwarding
items just because they seem compelling, is how misinformation spreads. There have always been rumors, gossip,
urban legends and old-wives' tales, but the Internet now makes it possible to spread misinformation faster than ever,
and it is imperative that we all do our homework before passing items along.
Relevant web sites
- The godfather of fake news by Anisa Subedar, BBC, Tuesday, November 27, 2018
- Fine-Tune Your B.S. Detector: You'll Need It by Elizabeth Bernstein, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2018
- The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, March 8, 2018
- Animals that don't need people to be domesticated; the astonishing spread of false news.... (audio) Science Magazine Podcast, March 8, 2018
- Don't get fooled by these fake news sites from CBS News
- You're the fact-checker now, Stanford Alumni, January 24, 2017
- Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants by Evgeny Morozov, The Guardian, Saturday, January 7, 2017
- Facebook now flags and down-ranks fake news with help from outside fact checkers by Josh Constine, TechCrunch, December 15, 2016
- Fake News Expert On How False Stories Spread And Why People Believe Them by Dave Davies & Craig Silverman, NPR Fresh Air, December 14, 2016
- Fake News: How a Partying Macedonian Teen Earns Thousands Publishing Lies by Alexander Smith & Vladimir Banic, NBC News, December 9, 2016
- Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts by Wynne Davis, NPR All Tech Considered, December 5, 2016
- Here are all the 'fake news' sites to watch out for on Facebook by Andrew Couts, The Daily Dot, updated December 5. 2016
- We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here's What We Learned by Laura Sydell, NPR All Things Considered, November 23, 2016
- How To Recognize A Fake News Story by Nick Robins-Early, The Huffington Post. Tuesday, November 22, 2016
- So about that viral list of fake news sites ... by James Hoyt, USA Today, November 17, 2016
- How Teens in the Balkans are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News by Craig Silverman & Lawrence Alexander, BuzzFeed, November 3, 2016
- Fake News Watch updated January 18, 2016
- Snopes' Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors by Kim LaCapria, Snopes, January 14, 2016
- List of fake news websites Wikipedia
Urban legend collections
- Adults are the only ones who fell for the Momo hoax by Andrew Tarantola, Engadget, March 5, 2019
- The enduring appeal of conspiracy theories by Melissa Hogenboom, BBC, January 24, 2018
- Does Fact-checking Matter? (audio) by Dave Ross, KIRO Radio, Monday, September 5, 2016
- A Guide to Arguing With a Snopes-Denier by Jef Rouner, Houston Press, Wednesday, April 2, 2014
- Computer Virus Hoaxes by David Emery
- Internet Virus Antidote by Sonia Lyris and Richard Brodie
- How to Spot an Email Hoax by David Emery
- How to Spot an Urban Legend by David Emery
- Current Netlore: Internet Hoaxes, Email Rumors and Urban Legends by David Emery
- What is a chain letter? by David Emery
- Do e-mail petitions work? by Katherine Hobson
- The AFU and Urban Legends Archive
- Don't Spread that Hoax!
- Truth About Computer Virus Myths & Hoaxes
- Symantec Anti-virus Research Center (SARC) — Virus Hoaxes
- Email fact of life
- No fooling: the 10 worst Internet hoaxes from CNN.com
Specific e-mail viruses
- False CNN-porn report shows how fast fake news spreads by Jefferson Graham, USA Today, Friday, November 25, 2016
- The Department of Justice is not going to conduct a vote audit based on your phoned-in outrage by Matt Zapotosky, The Washington Post, Tuesday, November 22, 2016
- 'Donald Trump Arrested' Virus Warning by David Mikkelson, Snopes, November 1, 2016
- ‘Black Muslim in the White House’ Virus Warning by David Emery, About, May 30, 2016
- Chain email says Medicare won't pay for 'observational' stay in hospital due to Obamacare by Louis Jacobson, Politifact, Thursday, June 25th, 2015
- Are Cell Phone Numbers ‘Going Public’ This Month? by David Emery, About January 18, 2016.
- Here's How a Bunch of Firemen Created a Viral Image that Fooled the Internet by Caroline Moss, Business Insider, May 3, 2014
- 809 Area Code Scam: About.com and ScamBusters
Parodies and Caricatures
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