When did e-mail/internet become “gospel” for some? And why do people love to forward Internet hoaxes?

My first experiences with interacting in online environments started when I was 13; as of this writing I’m 40 now. I’ve seen many changes when it comes to email and I think I’ve got a theory on why some people forward stuff as gospel. It can be attributed to an odd combination of technology advancements and a natural tendency for people to substitute “trust in the person that sent this” whenever a definite credible source isn’t available to validate some information.

Technology Advancements — from Digital Pony Express to Webmail:

My first access to “email” (as in the ability to send electronic mail to someone outside of my immediate area without making a long distance call with my computer to another computer) was through something called Bitnet back in the early to mid 80s. Bitnet was what “everyone else” had to use if they weren’t at a university/military/gov’t/research institution. The best way to picture how Bitnet worked is to think in terms of a digital version of the Pony Express. For me in Virginia Beach to send an email to someone in California it would take 1 or 2 days for the message to actually get to their inbox and 1 or 2 days to get back if they responded immediately. Unless you were on some mailing lists, it was rare to get more than 3-4 emails a week. If there were forwards, typically they were jokes, facts or usable information. Very rarely did people forward news articles because none of the major news sources were online like that and the few services that picked up news feeds cost at least $10 or $20 dollars an hour. Since “free” news wasn’t online, generally if someone wanted to forward you an article they had to type the whole thing up to send it. Even still, there was no real point because it would’ve been quicker just to call that person and say “Go read such-n-such newspaper/magazine and look for ______” or just make a photocopy and drop it in the snail mail. On top of that, there were still plenty of home computers that didn’t have the ability to cut-n-paste text between programs and email attachments as we know them today weren’t possible until the 90s. Bottom line, what few people were online at the time avoided sending junk. It was too much hassle.

“Trust in the person that sent this”:

When people hear about something and it’s not from a news source like CNN, MSNBC or Associate Press and it sounds credible they tend to believe it IF they trust the person they’re hearing it from. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of civilization. It’s the reason why everything from folklore to superstitions to legends get handed down from generation to generation. Now, take that and add on the fact that you can forward a 100-page long email to 100 people in less than a second without any effort or thought, that’s where you get problems, particularly if you receive the email from someone you know and trust.

If a complete stranger forwards you an email telling you about how to make a converter for a car with a diesel engine so it can run on used cooking oil (which is being done, btw), you’d probably be very skeptical, if not prone to just delete the email as junk. Now, if that email came from your best friend or a relative, you’d be prone to either be curious or just believe it at face value. Why? Because subconsciously you think this person has no reason to lie or mislead you. And when that person received it, they probably felt the same way about whoever sent it to them and so on.

So will there ever be an end to Email hoaxes?

Probably not. They are the folklore and legends of our times. There’s always going to be someone who believes that by forwarding an email that Microsoft’s email tracker will send them a check. There’s always going to be someone who is afraid that you’ll have a kidney stolen while traveling abroad if you’re not careful. Maybe it’s a good thing. It’ll keep us on our toes.

— Max Nomad