The rhetoric of email hoaxes

Image borrowed from Nokia Conversations, "Beware hoax emails and texts"

Image from Nokia Conversations, "Beware hoax emails and texts"

Sigh. I just received another email hoax, this time from a former student of mine who is a very intelligent woman.

It makes me wonder how we can best educate our citizens today about debunking email spam.

It seems like common sense is not enough to guard us.

People need to know some of the strategies that email hoaxes use to play on people.

We need to propagate through email the simple steps of how to research  them and debunk them.

And we need rhetorical strategies for replying to forwarders of hoax email in ways that do not insult them, but recognize their good will and educate them.

Let’s slow down hoax email’s viral infection of society.

Today’s sample hoax

Here’s today’s email hoax, which plays on the fact that Calgary and Vancouver have had gang shootings in the news headlines in the past few weeks.

Subject: Walmart Shoot-out this weekend

> Word is out from good sources that gangsters will be shooting (with
> guns) 3 women (randomly) in each of the walmart stores in calgary
> this weekend. This information has been verified by Calgary Police as
> well. Please avoid going to any of the walmarts this weekend.”

There are many “genres” of email hoax.  This one falls into the Bogus Warning or False Alarm category.

Who forwarded this and why?

The forwarded email chain has these comments from those who forwarded it —

1. Better to stay away i guess…

2. Don’t know if this is true but don’t go to walmart this weekend ok?

3. I actually feel really skeptical about this, but then, I’d hate this to be
true and never warned my friends and family about it….

These are not “Stupid” people.  They are reasoning human beings with good intentions.

  • It seems plausible in some cities that may have had recent gang shootings or retail-setting shootings.
  • And not only that, but shootings have occurred at Wal-marts in the past.  Same with MacDonald’s restaurants.   They seem to be more common locales than other stores probably because there are a lot of them, many people of all types frequent them, and they are often the target of hatred due to their commercial dominance of their markets.
  • Ultimately, they forwarded it out of friendly concern and fear. Even if it originated as a hoax, it might just happen.  It is better to be safe than sorry.

How I found out it was a hoax

Image by "Tomomarusan" from Wikimedia commons

Image by "Tomomarusan" from Wikimedia commons

It only took me a few seconds to find out.  I googled [calgary walmart shoot March 28] and this was the first hit

Walmart Gang Initiation: Shooting Texts a Mass Urban Legend Hoax (NowPublic website.  Posted by Tina Kells, March 19, 2009 at 03:21 pm).

The hoax is enjoying widespread rhetorical success.  At the present moment, the site just mentioned reports “58214 views | 38 Recommendations | 456 comments.”  Because my search terms included “Calgary,” I was directed to page 14 of the comments, where one person reported receiving this hoax in Calgary, Alberta.

Therefore, a good way to test whether an email warning is a hoax is to google key terms from the caution.

If you get nothing, try again.  Remove some of the unique identifiers (like Calgary) and add the word “hoax.” The hoax may have been an old one just modified to suit a new date and city, or a different product.

Why email hoaxes are unethical rhetoric

It may appear at first sight that nobody loses from forwarding an email that may save a life.

But who loses in this rhetorical act? Well, I can think of a few losers …

  1. The ethos of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is portrayed as an unsafe place to be.  The hoax did not say Reitmans, did not say Safeway.  Wal-Mart is an innocent victim in this particular case as the iconic “setting” in this fictional story.
  2. It heightens our sense of fear of public spaces and of strangers. Do we want people to become more paranoid and never encounter each other physically in real 3D space ?
  3. The forwarders’ reputations. If the hoax is publicly uncovered, it makes everyone who forwarded it look like a gullible fool.
  4. Our society’s bad communication habits. It perpetuates in our culture the tradition of sending unverified, though well-intended, claims by email. The reasoning goes like this: “Everyone does it, so I’m doing nothing really bad if I do it.”  It’s like sending a greeting card.  Do people verify the vague setiments and claims embedded in greeting cards?  Can you prove or disprove “you are my dearest friend?” or “word is out from good sources that gangsters will be shooting 3 women”?
  5. Truth by repetition. Statistically less plausible things seem more plausible simply because we have heard many testimonies like it.  It blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. How do you think belief in witches was perpetuated during the inquisition?  Why do you think for centuries women were considered less intelligent than men? People start believing something because they hear it so many times through secondhand sources… “yeah I once heard of something like that happening” … and gradually more heads start to nod in agreement.

So why is this email so effective in terms of rhetoric?

Principle 1.  Inertia

Hoax email plays on human inertia — our habitual ways of behaving.  We have a tendency to avoid behaviors that cost us time, money and energy and to continue habitual behaviors.

This particular version of email hoax plays on our habitual avoidance of acting in one way (research, inquiry, verification) and our habitual tendency to act in another way (quickly email friends any information that might be relevant to them).

The Rhetorical Act by K. K. Campbell and S. Huxman, 2009

The Rhetorical Act by K. K. Campbell and S. Huxman, 2009

On page 203 of Campbell and Huxman’s textbook The Rhetorical Act (Cengage, 4th ed. 2009), the authors reason further about inertia:

At a minimum, an action is a commitment, often a public commitment, to an attitude.  It expresses the recipients’ participation in the persuasive process and involves them in the process of influence. Participation in the rhetorical act may be a most effective way of influencing attitudes, and inducing a specific action may be just the reinforcement needed to ensure that a belief will persist.  In all cases, as just mentioned, rhetorical acts that propose specific, feasible, and immediate actions for the audience will be the most successful.

Hoax emails of the cautionary nature display a commitment to several positive attitudes:

  1. virtuous concern for one’s friends’ welfare and public safety. Taking part in this “process of influence” is a smaller version of being an activist, like participating in a charity fundraiser.   There’s something heroic about it.  It is also an expression of kind concern like sending a greeting card once used to be.
  2. consistency with one’s own values and ethos. Forwarders reassure their consciences that they did something about a problem through a “specific, feasible and immediate” and low-cost action of forwarding an email.

Principle 2. the Fallacy of “Appeal to Ignorance”

Campbell and Huxman explain this fallacy as

An argument that a speaker asks the audience to accept solely because it has not been proven false.

It seems virtuous to believe that the forwarder, and original sender, is “innocent until proven guilty” of lying or of being too gullible.  Okay, but can we prove anything?

If it can’t be disproven, maybe the claim is too vague to be anything more than a sentimental greeting-card claim.

If it can be disproven, let’s get to it.

Solution 1. Act against inertia

To counteract these virtues from getting out of hand by being exercised on a whim, I would like to prescribe us this rhetorical medicine:

The public attitude of respectful, active engagement with a speaker/sender. Not just forwarding.

I know we are used to being passive recipients of media.  As we watch TV, we just turn sideways to the person next to us on the couch and say “what a weird commercial” or whatever.  We can’t talk back to the advertiser through the TV.

But this is apparently a real person sending it to you (if you know them already).  So, instead of just fowarding, engage in a dialogue with the sender in a way that enacts your positive public commitment to an attitude of engagement with their friendly concern.

Why not reply to your friend and have a conversation about this snippet?  Talk about how it makes you feel about what’s been in the news lately, discuss productive ways of dealing with your fears, and it will be a more genuine act of friendship and sharing of values and information and advice than simply one-way communication that quotes an unverified source.

The ancient rhetorician Isocrates once said of the art of speech, with which all humans are gifted —

With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown; for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts. (Antidosis 256)

Solution 2. Act against ignorance

I would like to suggest the counter-rhetoric of an “Appeal to Inquiry and Debate.”

So it might be plausible, but let’s get curious.  Let’s ask ourselves why something is positively believable or plausible.  Let’s ask ourselves why it might be untrue despite the reasons for its believability.  Let’s debate!

Possible replies to your forwarder that are respectful of kind intentions but appeal to inquiry:

  • “Hey, thanks!  Did you have time to check it out, or should I check it further before sending it on?”
  • “This sounds pretty scary, and thanks for your concern, but what if it’s an email hoax?”

If you see your friend throw litter on the sidewalk, don’t just ignore it.  Be a friend and a good citizen.

And if you have time, instead of just appealing to inquiry, do the inquiry yourself. That may be an act of kindness and good will because they might not have the time — or they may be too ashamed to pick up their own email litter.

By doing this, you demonstrate your ability to distinguish good and evil, and your wisdom, sound understanding and love of justice.  As Isocrates wrote,

It is by this [power of speech] also that we confute the bad and extol the good. Through this we educate the ignorant and appraise the wise; for the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding, and discourse which is true and lawful and just is the outward image of a good and faithful soul. (Antidosis 255)

In conclusion…

You can take action against email hoaxes among your acquaintances.

  • Counteract inertia with engagement.  Consider replying instead of forwarding.
  • Counteract the appeal to ignorance with the appeal to inquiry.  Become curious, and inspire curiosity.

It took only 5 minutes for me to skim the email hoax, do the google search described above, and email back my friend with information.

My reply to my former student’s email was the following (this made sense because of our prior relationship of educator/student)–

  1. to inform her of what I googled & what I discovered,
  2. to give tips on googling to verify hoaxes, and
  3. to conclude my email with “I know you intended well, but it does not do good things to your reputation to believe too much of what you get via email.  Smiles.”

My reply was only 7 lines of text.

I intended it as an “Isocratean” rhetorical act of respect and mutual education to verify the hoax and to reply to her in this manner.

How might you reply to your friend, your coworker, your mother?  Only you can judge what tone and strategy is most appropriate for your relationship.

But do something other than just mindlessly forwarding it on.


One thought on “The rhetoric of email hoaxes

  1. Very well thought out. I need to come back and read it again. I would not have thought to connect Isocrates and e-mail – the ancient and the contemporary. Well done!

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