Forwarding hysteria

(Last change: 12 January 1999.)

How many times have you received email that says “please forward this to everyone you know”? How many times have you forwarded such email and later discovered that you’d helped perpetrate a hoax, or learned that the email became outdated two years before?

Any time that you receive much-forwarded email telling you to do something that seems a little odd, or warning you of a problem, try to verify the information given before following the instructions or forwarding the email. It can save a lot of trouble (and sometimes money!) later.

The Net allows hoaxes and urban legends to reach hundreds of thousands of people within hours; it’s often (as demonstrated by the durability of the Craig Shergold business) difficult or impossible for the truth to catch up with the rumor. It’s especially tough to contain such items because well-meaning people like to tell everyone they know about potential dangers and about ways to do good. But it’s really best to resist the temptation to tell anyone these things until you’ve checked up on the info yourself.

Here are some of the general types of false or distorted information that most commonly get distributed without verification:

  • Mail that exists only to be forwarded (chain letters (also known as chain mail); the email AIDS letter)
  • Requests for anything (cards, aluminum pulltabs, email) to be sent to a sick person, a hospital, or anyone else (Craig Shergold, for instance; or the students supposedly doing a science project about email; or the leukemia letter, which crosses with the previous category; or the Houghton-Mifflin spam request (similar to next category))
  • Telephone numbers and email addresses supposedly paid for by a specifically-mentioned person or group (800 number “paid for by Jesse Helms”; email address that “gets Sun to donate money to charity”)
  • Warnings of computer viruses (“Good Times”)
  • Warnings of dangerous activity in the real world (“lights out!”)
  • Requests for email or calls to fight a specific policy (FCC Modem Tax (And here’s info on the 1997 wave of FCC-related panic mail.))
  • Electronic petitions. These often are in response to real situations in the real world, but I have yet to encounter one that was set up in a reasonable way (and they often contain false, distorted, or outdated information anyway).

and so on. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t personally know the original originator of the message, it may well have been distorted in transmission—remember the game “Telephone”? Information tends to get garbled as it’s passed along, even if it was true originally. (It also tends to get outdated as time goes on...)

Here’s another good rule of thumb: if you receive a piece of email which demands that you panic without thinking, it’s probably not a good idea to follow instructions. This is particularly applicable to the last three types of commonly forwarded mail on the above list.

Before you forward anything to a large number of people, stop and think. Do you know for sure the email is true? Does everyone you’re writing to need to know about it? If the answer to either question is “no,” you might reconsider sending it out.

This page is not meant as an attack on anyone. Forwarding important email is something most of us do at one time or another. I’d just like to see people make sure of an item’s accuracy before passing it on.


  • If for some reason you find yourself sending a note to the Net at large and asking people to forward it, be sure and put an expiration date on it in a prominent place. Otherwise, like the Craig Shergold meme, the note will doubtless circulate on the Net forever. (It may do so even if you do include an expiration date, but at least there’s a chance that sense will prevail.)
  • Note that this page doesn’t address the issue of email forwarding in general (the “two-fifty” cookie recipe, lists of funny signs from non-US hotels, puzzles about finding out which gold coin is lighter than the others, etc.). Some such items (such as Dave Barry columns) are copyrighted, and therefore illegal to forward (please follow that link if you think it’s okay to forward copyrighted material as long as you don’t charge for it); but most forwarded net-folklore items are relatively harmless. It’s worth noting, however, that (a) many such items are urban legends with no basis in fact whatsoever; and (b) most such items have been around since long before there was an Internet, and many people have seen them many many times before. If you’re new to the Net, check with someone who’s been around a while longer before you forward something, to find out whether the item in question is an old chestnut.