Armchair Activists: Break the Chain of Urban Legends

Internet | Building/Consensus
With the Kerry campaign blasting out as many as 3 emails a day, and MoveOn and other activist groups pumping them out as well, an average Internet user might think that mass email is an effective tool for advocacy. It’s certainly cheap– especially if you don’t have to write it yourself, and instead just forward some junk you got from someone else.

What sinks your credibility is if you forwarding a message that ain’t entirely news– as “dog bites man” is not as newsworthy as “man bites dog”. Obviously, check a search engine to see who else has written about this and when. Even William Safire uses Google to figure out when a recent phrase was introduced into the landscape.

There’s a few good websites which inform as to the truthfulness and age of the stories that come in mass emails. As on might guess, has list of those strange-but-perhaps-true stories that won’t die. Barbara and David Mikkelson have collecting and categorized their Urban Legends Reference Pages since 1995. John Ratliff of Break the Chain takes a more proactive stance, in urging people to not just recognize (and disregard) suspicious emails, but to stop them. Here’s how he puts it:

A Chain-Breaker is anyone who takes the time to consider that not everything written in e-mail is golden and that there is always a better source of information than an e-mail chain letter.
Some breakers simply stop the chain when they get it. Others send the facts about a chain back to the sender to educate them. Some send the facts “back up the chain” to everyone that got the chain before they did.

In addition, Ratliff explains thoroughly a particular breed of email chains he calls Armchair Activism: “Armchair Activism refers to efforts to influence socio-political change through the ineffective use of e-mail and websites while ignoring safer, more effective (but more difficult) means of advocacy.”

Here at Civilities we encourage would-be online advocate to practice as Journalactivists. It’s a combination of putting the time into doing the research needed for advocacy, as well as having the best technical tools at hand for building consensus.

Of the three websites, only Snopes has updated their email tax story to point out that yes, such a proposal did come this January from noneother than Bill Gates (who, to conspiracy quacks, is not quite as evil as a quasi-government agency such as the Postal Service). The point of the world’s richest man was that such a stamp would greatly reduce not only spam but frivolous emails. Snopes, however, neglected to point to any article on it, such as this AP filing by Anick Jesdanun. Instead they complained that it would curtail their ability to send mass mails!