Memes, Hoaxes, Urban Myths and other diseases of the mind

One call from a certain number to your mobile phone can kill you. A dangerous computer virus can cause your computer to explode without warning. If you forward a certain email, Bill Gates will send you $1000. If you don’t forward a certain email, parts of your anatomy you would rather didn’t will shrink.

All these stories have one thing in common.

None of them are true!

So called urban legends and hoaxes such as these are nothing new. Although they have become more widespread since technology has broadened the reach of communication, similar stories have been passed around societies for centuries.
Such stories are a little like viruses – they survive because we pass them on to other people who spread them further. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has dubbed such things memes, similar to genes. They move on through generations, changing subtly as they go. Strong memes survive longer than weaker ones.

Chain Letters

Chain letters are the most overt form of meme – they ask you to pass them on. Somehow we must be compelled to do so. Various tactics are used. They mainly appeal to our hopes, fears and compassions.

The earliest chain letters appeal to peoples’ religious sensibilities. Chain letters from the 18th Century often included a prayer which was to be passed on to a number of other people. The more people who received the prayer, the greater the luck granted to the person who sent it on.

Those who don’t pass the letter on are threatened with an array of punishments. Reference is usually made to the fates of those who failed to comply. Boils, deaths and sudden loss of wealth are common. How people who don’t reply to a chain letter are identified is a mystery.

Similar chain letters exist today as emails containing prayers, patterns made from letters and symbols or simply assertions that the email is somehow blessed.

Some are not blessed by God. In our times where commercialism has replaced many functions of religion businesses are identified as the sources of good luck, usually in the form of money.

A common chain letter claims to be written by Bill Gates. If the email reaches 1,000 people, each of them will receive a cheque for $1,000! Of course, since the email began at least seven years ago it has reached several million people, not one of whom has received a cent.

Another common form of chain letter involves a list of names and addresses – the recipient of the letter sends a small sum of money to each of the people listed, then adds their name to the bottom of the list, and deletes the first persons. The letter tells of how you will receive thousands of dollars in return. Do not be fooled by such letters. Most participants send no money to anyone. They simply add their name and address to the bottom of the list and pass the letter on.

Pyramid schemes such as these have been very popular throughout history. The Albanian government was brought to its knees in 1997 when a large number of pyramid schemes collapsed. There simply weren’t enough people in Albania for the scheme to work. All pyramid schemes ultimately reach this limit. Only a very small number of people make money from such schemes – the majority lose both money and hope.

Many chain letters appeal to our compassion rather than greed. A common theme is the sick child who wishes to receive get well soon cards from the most people. In 1989 Craig Shergold, a 9 year old English boy, requested people send him get well cards, hoping to get into the Guinness Book of Records. 15 years later the request is still in circulation. Craig still receives thousands a day. He has recovered from cancer, and would like the attention to stop now please!

Other chain letters claim to be petitions against deforestation, boycotting petrol stations and preventing a woman from being stoned to death. As worthy as these causes may be, signing an online petition and passing it on is worthless. The lists cannot be verified, and there is rarely anyone waiting to receive them who will take any action because of them.

Talking can be just as effective as email for spreading memes. In Nigeria this year a rumour circulated that a man died after receiving a call from a mysterious number to his mobile phone. Superstitious Nigerians stopped using their phones completely, fearing the same fate, prompting the major phone companies to issue reassuring statements. No one has identified the man who supposedly died.

What is the moral of this story? People can be easily fooled by the power of suggestion. Be careful your email doesn’t hypnotise you!

Interesting links

Originally published in Arusha Times 332

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