Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is the internet making us stupid?

Hardly a week goes by when I don't receive in my inbox some dire warning or guess what or that'll show 'em type message, usually forwarded on from their inbox.

It seems that it is no longer safe to fill up your car at a petrol station because an escaped mass murderer has just climbed into the back seat (fortunately spotted by the eagle eyed cashier who has dialled 911/999/The Samaritans), that every layby is strewn with baby carriers which are nothing but a lure for some bizarre gang initiation which will end in my certain demise and the Muslims are taking over the world/the legal system/McDonalds. Not to mention, of course, the fact that the sea is salty because of ejaculating blue whales. I mean, we know it's not true but still people felt unable to resist the urge of the 'share' button.

These are all sent to my by intelligent people but for some reason, the fact that something appears on the internet makes us suspend disbelief and, while we are adept at comparing car insurance or buying our shopping online, we seem pathologically unable to do a quick search of Mr Google to find out if this claptrap has any validity before hitting the 'forward' button and sending it speeding down the disinformation superhighway.

Take this for example:

The bank manager thought it amusing enough to have it published in The Times (apparently)
Dear Sir,

I am writing to thank you for bouncing my cheque with which I endeavoured to pay my plumber last month. By my calculations, three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the cheque and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honour it. I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my Pension, an arrangement, which, I admit, has been in place for only thirty eight years. You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account £30 by way of penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank.

My thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has caused me to rethink my errant financial ways. I noticed that whereas I personally attend to your telephone calls and letters, but when I try to contact you, I am confronted by the impersonal, overcharging, pre-recorded, faceless entity which your bank has become. From now on, I, like you, choose only to deal with a flesh-and-blood person. My mortgage and loan payments will therefore and hereafter no longer be automatic, but will arrive at your bank by cheque, addressed personally and confidentially to an employee at your bank whom you must nominate. Be aware that it is an offence under the Postal Act for any other person to open such an envelope.

Please find attached an Application Contact Status which I require your chosen employee to complete. I am sorry it runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative. Please note that all copies of his or her medical history must be countersigned by a Solicitor, and the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets and liabilities) must be accompanied by documented proof. In due course, I will issue your employee with PIN number which he/she must quote in dealings with me. I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28 digits but, again, I have modelled it on the number of button presses required of me to access my account balance on your phone bank service. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Let me level the playing field even further. When you call me, press buttons as follows:

1. To make an appointment to see me.
2. To query a missing payment.
3. To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there.
4. To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping.
5. To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to nature.
6. To transfer the call to my mobile phone if I am not at home.
7. To leave a message on my computer (a password to access my computer is required.
A password will be communicated to you at a later date to the Authorized Contact.)
8. To return to the main menu and to listen to options 1 through to 8.
9. To make a general complaint or inquiry, the contact will then be put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering service. While this may, on occasion, involve a lengthy wait, uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.

Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also levy an establishment fee to cover the setting up of this new arrangement.

May I wish you a happy, if ever so slightly less prosperous, New Year.

Your Humble Client

(Remember: This was written by a 98 year old woman; DOESN'T SHE MAKE YOU PROUD!)


Well actually no. A 98 year old woman who still has bank loans AND a mortgage? I know we're in tough times at the moment but do we really believe that there are 98 year olds with mortgages.  In other versions, she is American, Canadia or Australian and varies in age from mid-70s to late 90s and, given that this particular urban legend first appeared 12 years ago she's most likely dead anyway.

But why do we believe these things when ever a cursory glance should have alarm bells ringing.  There are two possible reasons. The devil is in the detail.  It was published in The Times, very credible and all that, but of course a complete fallacy.  It mentions the Postal Act. All sounds like she's done her research so it must be true. Except of course there is no Postal Act in the UK. There is a Postal Services Act but unless this lady can add clairvoyance to her other prodigious talents, the Postal Services Act having not come into force until two years after she 'wrote' her letter, then it is another indication of the fact that this is just nonsense.

In fact this came from a spoof letter written by Australian columnist Peter Wear in the Perspectives column of the Courier Mail in Brisbane, Australia in 1999. It was a humourous piece inspired by his bank bouncing a cheque.  Bet he's really cross he's not getting royalties!

Most people probably received at least one - or in my case five - e-mails telling me how this year July has five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays and OMG this only happens once every 823 years.  Once again, it draws us in with the detail. 823 years? Hmm, if it said 100 years would be believe it? Probably less so but 823, that sounds plausible.

But let’s think about this, a year can only start on one of seven days, so there are seven possible basic calendar years. Add leap years, and there are fourteen basic calendars. And one of those calendars only gets used every 823 years? How would that be possible? It’s not of course, all fourteen calenders get cycled through regularly, in fact 2010 uses the exact same calendar as 1999. So don't throw those old calendars and diaries away, you'll be able to use them in the future.

In actual fact any month with 31 days will have five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. Go and have a look.

So I'm afraid I didn't pass it on to 823 friends or my eyes would shrivel in their sockets and my teeth would fall out and 48 days later I am neither blind nor dentally challenged.

The other reason why people of otherwise sound intelligence pass these on is that they believe the source. It came from my old mate George and he's a lawyer so he must be telling the truth.  If I said it came from Newsbiscuit or the Lib/Dem Shoutout we'd all be going 'Pah!' into our cornflakes.

Of course the growth of social media has made it all too easy to disseminate these hoaxes with the click of a button and while some may take it upon themselves to correct you, it doesn't alter the fact that you have advertised your gullibility to 823 of your friends. In the old days you'd tell your best friend. They'd say 'don't be ridiculous' and that would be it.

I don't personally believe that the internet is making us stupid. More gullible perhaps and more prone to passing on bad information but nowhere else would the response to disinformation be so immediate. Presented with such compelling proof of their gullibility, even the most diehard will eventually succumb to common sense.

So, here for your delight and delectation are some more of the most popular hoaxes so next time you get one in your inbox you can smugly point out it's urban legend status and save those 823 friends the bother.

http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_zero_gravity_pen.htm  (got this last week)

http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/celebrities/a/richard_gere.htm

http://urbanlegends.about.com/b/2011/02/17/everyones-phone-numbers-are-now-on-facebook.htm (friend posted on Facebook yesterday)

http://urbanlegends.about.com/b/2010/12/28/aretha-franklin-died.htm  (no she didn't)

http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/missing/ashleyflores.asp (seen last week on Facebook)

11 comments:

Steve said...

What annoys me the most about receiving these emails is the laziness of the people forwarding them; they never bother to check if they're hoaxes or not. All you have to do is copy and paste the first line of the email into Google and I guarantee the answer will pop up immediately. I always reply to the sender with a link to the hoax confirmation site and leave it at that. Let them feel stupid in their own time.

Taz said...

Another one that drives me nuts are the 3 page text messages that tell you to forward them to 2 billion of your best friends so something good will happen to you at 3 o'clock. I'm sure they're are originated by the bloody phone companies. :)

Perpetually In Transit said...

Can you read my thoughts by any chance, Wylye Girl? I usually just delete these, but I'm afraid I lost patience yesterday and sent a blistering reply to someone who forwarded a particularly unappealing specimen, probably to her entire address book.
http://www.hoax-slayer.com/refugee-payment-hoax.shtml

Sigh.....

Wylye Girl said...

Steve, I usually (politely) do the same and now I sometimes get them with the message 'probably not true but I'm sending it on just in case'. Don't! Check it out. Drives me nuts. Grrr....

Taz, I don't even bother with them. If some avenging angel wants to come and smite me, so be it! Why don't people just send the money instead of telling you that if you forward their e-mail onto the entire known universe by 3 days ago you'll get a quid through the post!

PiT - Urgh! I got that one too. Deleted it after the first line. It's racist as far as I'm concerned and borderline 'incitement to racial hatred'. I find it really offensive that friends believe I think like that. Good luck with your new blog!

Sarah said...

Quite agree with you! I have a friend that faithfully forwarded everything until I told her that XYZ was a hoax and she should never forward anything without checking it out.

Eventually she changed her habits and I have a hoax-free in-box. :)

Wylye Girl said...

Sarah, I certainly get less and less now. I don't for a minute think the people that forward these are stupid but hopefully it will make them thing before believing this nonsense

the fly in the web said...

I have one friend who innocently passes on everything she receives...so as soon as I see who the mail is from I just delete it.

Pointless, time wasting stupidities, the lot of them.

Wylye Girl said...

Fly, the thing is, I get them from people who are anything but stupid but somehow if it's on the internet it must be true. Bizarre!

Trish @ Mum's Gone to... said...

Ah a woman after my own heart. I do wonder at the intelligence of my pals who send me such tosh. I always check this sort of thing out on Snopes.
I also find it irritating getting the angels and blessings type of email - pass to ten people to tell them you love them. F*** off!

projectforty said...

worse, still, I feel are the inane personality 'tests' and schmalzy 'ain't life hilarious' rubbish. I had one yesterday that asked whether I could spot a man photoshopped into an image of coffee beans. if I had time to look, I wouldn't be looking for a man in a bowl of beans!

Wylye Girl said...

Trish - that did make me laugh, especially the ending!

Projectforty - welcome to my blog. As if we have the time to spend looking for a man in coffee beans and as if we care!

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