How dare you embarrass me to my friends?

by Rich Pasco

For several years, I have had a personal goal of stopping the spread of e-mail viruses. These include not just executable computer viruses, but also hoaxes, fake news, and pointless petitions, and other time-wasters that propagate because of a dire-sounding warning or a plausible good cause, and an exhortation to "forward to everyone you know." These proliferate by playing tricks on the mind of the recipient.

When I receive one of these, I usually respond to the same audience to which it was addressed, explaining why it is not a good idea to forward it. Where possible, I provide a link to a specific web site that illustrates the folly in the specific item I received.

The responses I've received have been amazing. In some cases, the person who sent the item is gratefully appreciative for my shedding light on the subject. But just as often, the response is, "How dare you embarrass me to my friends!"

I usually comply with the maxim, "praise publicly, criticize privately," but my response to a virus hoax is not a personal criticism. If I responded only to the person who had forwarded the e-mail virus, it's quite likely that at least some of its many other recipients would believe it and take the requested action, wasting not only their own time but also that of others, indirectly perhaps thousands of people.

I am very sorry when I hear that someone feels embarrassed. Of course it is embarrassing to realize you were fooled into forwarding a hoax to hundreds of friends! But I cannot take personal responsibility for that person's embarrassment. After all, it was that person, not me, who forwarded the hoax to hundreds of people without first checking out the truth in it. I cannot in good conscience withhold the truth and play along with a known hoax just to save someone the embarrassment that the truth would bring. This would be reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes."

I mentioned above that I respond to a hoax to the same audience to which it was posted. I am also happy to investigate any message sent privately to me for investigation, in which case I respond privately. As I see it, the person who broadcast the hoax to an audience of hundreds could just have easily sent it to me privately if he wanted to receive my feedback privately.

Once I received a forward-to-everyone-you-know petition about gay rights from a dear friend. I responded to the same audience, noting that although I support gay rights, e-mail petitions are ineffective at accomplishing anything. My friend, whose daughter is a Lesbian, could only interpret my response as if I were attacking her daughter and all that was dear to her family. She clearly totally missed my point.

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Copyright © 2001 Richard C. Pasco. All rights reserved.