False Attribution Syndrome
In e-mail, as in all aspects of life, we tend to regard information as more credible when a name is attached to it. But what if that person's name was inadvertently attached to the message and people still think he or she is responsible for it? What if it was your name?
Consider this fictional example:
Jane Smith works for the Fairway County Health Deparment. She receives, from a friend, a chain letter warning that bananas from Costa Rica are infected with "flesh-eating bacteria." Concerned, but not convinced, she forwards the message to friends and family "just in case." After all, even if it's a hoax, what can it hurt to be safe? When she sends it, her e-mail software automatically adds a "signature" to the outgoing note:
Water & Sewage Division
Fairway County Health Department
One of her friends, upon receiving it from her, passes it on to others, adding this note to the beginning:
IMPORTANT!!! This comes from a good friend who works for the health department!
As the warning reaches people more removed from Jane, her signature begins to morph. Well-meaning forwarders strip off elements that "don't fit."
Fairway County Health Department
The Fairway County Health Department begins receiving hundreds of phone calls from people who want to verify the information in the letter. They track down Jane to find out what happened, and post a correction on their web site, trying to stop the spread of what they've determined to be a hoax. But, by now, the chain has a life of its own. It begins to mutate, causing problems for a variety of organizations and individuals including city, county and state health departments around the country, the Centers for Disease Control as well as their international counterparts, and it all comes back to poor Jane, who just wanted to be helpful.
Does this example sound far-fetched? Here are a few real examples:
- Master Gunnery Sergeant Ed Evans passed along a poignant essay he received days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. More than a year later, he seeks out the real author, in hopes that identifying him or her will help stop the hundreds of calls and letters from people thinking he wrote it.
- Monzine Jang, an office administrator at the University of Calgary passed along a letter she received about Penny Brown, a fictional 9-year old girl who had supposedly gone missing. Soon after, the school disconnected Jang's phone and deleted her e-mail account due to the large number of people who mistook her for Penny's mother and wanted to show their support or offer assistance.
- Dr. J. Matthew Durham, a South Carolina chiropractor, had to install a new phone system for his small practice to handle more than 40 callers a day who wanted to know more about Braedon Hembree, a sick infant mentioned in a chain letter Dr. Durham had received and passed along.
- Dr. Dennis Shields of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York's Yeshiva University forwarded a touching poem that had been attached to a sick child hoax, prompting the school to post a notice on their web site asking you to delete the message.
- Michelle Hailey, executive secretary at the University of Pennsylvania, inadvertently added her name, title and contact information to a questionable chain letter about shampoos causing cancer when she received and forwarded it. Thousands began thinking that warning was an official notice from the University.
- Days before his tragic death, Ohio teen, Brian Moore shared a touching story entitled "The Room" with friends in his school's Fellowship of Christian Students. After his death, friends and family members began sharing it with others, mistakenly calling it Brian's work, causing some to mistakenly call the late student a plagiarist.
- Paul Hinchey, an Oklahoma firefighter, passed along an entreaty for people not to buy Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's autobiography, even though McVeigh had earmarked a portion of the proceeds to go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Though he agrees with the sentiment, he did not write the letter bearing his name.
- Lisa Watts of the Michigan Attorney General's Office passed along a notice she received warning of gang members hiding out in women's back seats as part of an initiation ritual, earning the ire of her employer who had to deal with a deluge of calls about this hoax.
- Two employees of JC Penney's Direct Marketing Service received and forwarded a chain letter hoax about shopping mall abduction schemes, causing later versions to be falsely attributed to "officials at JC Penney."
- In 2000, Cindy Williams, a senior fellow at MIT wrote a scathing and controversial editorial in the Washington Post about what she felt was an unnecessary pay raise for members of the U.S. military. Response was immediate and severe. Unfortunately, it was wrongly directed at actress Cindy Williams (Shirley Feeney from TV's "Laverne & Shirley?") who did not write it and is very upset about being blamed for it.
Still think it "can't hurt" to forward something "just in case?" Even if you aren't the one whose identity gets falsely attached to one of these chains, you could unwittingly cause somebody else a great deal of woe. E-mail is not reliable. Just because someone appears to have written it, that doesn't mean they didn't just forward it and add their name. When you get such a chain, try to verify that it is indeed the work of the person to whom it is attributed and that the author intended it to be spread far and wide by people he or she does not know. If you can't find that out, do not forward it.
Before you forward any chain letter ask yourself two questions: "Would I want people to think I wrote this? Would I be able to deal with it if they did?" Makes you think twice, doesn't it?