Internet use might be too easy

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 16, 2005

The flood of e-mails relating to Hurricane Katrina serves as a reminder of how incredibly easy it is to use the Internet to communicate.

I often wonder whether it’s too easy.

Forget spam for the moment. The “from” line or the “subject” line usually are enough to identify spam, and you can easily delete it.

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What I am talking about are those e-mails that are from someone you know. Only they’re not really from that person. They’re something that person has received via e-mail and has with a few clicks of the mouse forwarded to everyone in his (or her) address book. I am not talking about the forwarding of such items as newspaper or magazine articles where the source is clearly identified. I get, and usually read, many pieces that have a different perspective than my own. I’m talking about items that have a ring of authenticity but contain nothing to identify their origin.

Often the forwarded item is in the form of an attachment without so much as

a note in the body of the e-mail that says what the attachment is about or why the person is sending it. Many people, including me, don’t open attachments, even from people we know, unless the contents are identified in the body of the e-mail and are worth the time to read.

The bulk of the forwarded e-mail I receive falls into three broad categories:

Jokes. Actually some of them are really funny, and, since I have trouble remembering jokes, I actually save them to a folder marked “Jokes.” The wide circulation e-mail affords, though, makes it difficult to tell a joke that someone hasn’t already heard.

Myths, or what we now call urban legends. Of course, they circulated long before the Internet, just not as quickly. I couldn’t count the number of calls I received when I was an editor from people who breathlessly reported outrages or dangers with the conviction that it was gospel truth.

One call that we received almost every Christmas season for years involved a gang initiation rite in which young men were hiding under automobiles parked in shopping center lots and slashing the heels of shoppers returning to their cars. The cops, of course, were suppressing the information

The reports were never true, and a little questioning almost always revealed that the callers didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the facts but had gotten the information from someone else. In another words, they were just repeating rumors.

You have no doubt heard many of the myths – or fabrications, if you will: The clothing maker who donates a portion of profits to a satanic church, the coffee chain that refuses to support our servicemen, or the senator who threw a delegation of Gold Star mothers out of her office.

Many of the myths are malicious, some made up by misanthropes, others by people with an ax to grind.

They understand the quirks of human nature and prey on them. They know that many of us get a shiver of excitement out of being frightened, that many of us will choose a conspiracy over a straightforward explanation of any occurrence, and that many of us will believe and pass on unquestioningly anything that supports and reinforces our own political beliefs.

Viruses. Many people harbor secret suspicions of computers, and a seemingly authoritative warning about a virus is believable, all the more so since there are so many real virus threats.

I am beginning to think that a box should pop up whenever someone clicks on the “forward” button of their e-mail program. It would be like the little box that comes up when you press the delete key asking: Are sure that you want to delete the item?

The box I propose would ask: Are you sure that you want to forward this message without verifying its contents?

For those who want to verify before forwarding, there are some Internet sites that can offer documentation on the truth or falsity of claims making the rounds. Among them:

Virus warnings:

Other forwarded stories, warnings, etc.:

Will Rogers once observed, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble; it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

Maybe we ought to forward that reminder to everyone in our address books.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2005 William B. Brown