More on Forwarded Email Propaganda

Submitted by Ken Watts on Thu, 11/15/2007 - 11:33

A reader weighs in with a suggestion:

I'd encourage everyone to not only vet [those emails] before forwarding, but also to research and reply-to-all on anything along these lines that they may receive.

Just stating the facts (with links to sources of verifiable non-partisan sites) goes a long way to stopping the madness of these types of things.

I agree in principal, and I've done it myself. But it can lead to hurt feelings.

One time I received an email built around how our children's rights are being violated, because they're not allowed to pray in public schools.

I responded by pointing out that, yes, they were allowed to pray in school, that the real question was whether they could be forced to pray in school, to a deity that they, or their family, did not accept.

I went on to point out  that the principle of separation of church and state didn't just keep conservative Christian teachers from forcing children to pray to Jesus; it also kept non-Christian teachers from forcing Christian kids to pray to other gods.

I then hit "reply to all".

I got two responses: a thank-you note from one of the people on the reply-to-all list, and a note from the person who forwarded the email to me originally. 

The original sender was offended, and upset, that I would use a list of their friends to contradict something they had forwarded.

I can understand someone feeling that way, though I don't think I quite agree. If I make a statement to a group of people, whether it's at a party, on the street corner, or by email, I expect that those with opposing views have a right to enter the conversation.

But this says something about the whole pattern of email propaganda.

You receive an email. You think it's amusing, or interesting, or perhaps you even agree with it. But you don't have to really go to much effort to simply forward it to everyone you know. It's a matter of clicking a button.

However, having done that, you have committed yourself to the message. You have taken a position, very publicly, in a couple of very private seconds in front of your computer.

There's a psychological effect to this.

You are now much more committed to the message than you were before, even though you haven't been given a single additional shred of evidence for the position it takes.

If someone else performs the same kind of private/public act in disagreement, you may take it personally, in a way that you wouldn't have otherwise.

This amounts to a kind of very subtle, remote control, brainwashing.

These forwards are not just a way of spreading an idea efficiently, they are a way of getting people to commit to the idea, or deepen their commitment, by the very act of forwarding it.

This is a dangerous practice in a democracy: getting people to commit to ideas and beliefs which may be false, without any regard to the actual evidence.

I think we have to do something about it. So my next post will offer a way to fight fire with fire.