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What I've Learned
Somebody finds a picture of a wide-eyed kitten standing on its hind legs and pawing the air.
While struggling to come up with a funny caption for the picture, the person hears the news that Osama bin Laden is dead. The caption almost writes itself.
"Osama bin Laden," the kitten is made to say, "I hates that guy. He used to eaten kittens like me."
The captioner attaches his creation to an email and sends it to 20 friends and relatives.
Though the joke is of questionable taste and only barely humorous, any cute picture of a kitten will get passed along, regardless of what the caption is. Some of the recipients delete the picture with not so much as a smile. Some smile weakly, then delete the pic. A few however forward the kitten to dozens of people on their email lists and the picture moves on.
Somebody posts it on a website.
What gets posted on one website often gets copied onto others because people are lazy and instead of creating original content of their own, scour the Internet for stuff to re-post.
Somewhere along the line – don't ask me why, who can account for the things people do – someone writes a pseudo news story based on the picture.
"Osama bin Laden ate kittens. One of the Seal Team Six members who took part in the fatal raid said, under conditions of strict anonymity, that the remains of butchered kittens were found in the kitchen area and a pen held a dozen live kittens, some with their eyes barely open, awaiting the sad fate of their slaughtered siblings."
The person prepares an email entitled, "Raid reveals that Osama ate kittens," and sends the newly created nonsense to 34 people.
Among the recipients are several cat-lovers who, shocked, forward the email to dozens of others who share their feline obsession.
Along the way, someone adds a paragraph, "This is real. I checked it out on snopes.com."
Someone else adds, "Pass this on to people you know who care about animals."
Within days, the bogus report has spread not to hundreds, but to tens of thousands of email in-boxes. When it arrives at your in-box, what do you do? What Do You Do?
Here are four simple guidelines.
1. Develop a critical eye.
Any email that encourages you to pass it on is probably junk.
If an email says you should pass it on, don't. Particularly ones that promise good luck if you forward it to a dozen friends. Or threaten bad luck if you don't. Grow up. Delete the stupid thing.
Only one out of a thousand forwarded emails is worth the nothingness it's written on and even those won't be missed.
"But, wait," you say. "What if it's true? What if Osama really was eating kittens?"
This leads up to:
2. Check it out yourself.
The truthfulness of most email claims is easy to verify. Go to snopes.com (or BreakTheChain.org, TruthOrFiction.com, or thatsNonsense.com) and type in a few key words. They'll give you the skinny. I made up the whole Osama eats kittens as an example of how things get started. If, however, this was a real email that was spreading, go to Snopes and type Osama, eating, and kittens in their search box.
"But," you say,"someone already did that. It says right in the email that it was checked out on snopes.com."
Let me ask you a seemingly unrelated question. Someone hands you a firearm and says, "Don't worry, it's not loaded." What do you do? What Do you Do?"
You remove the magazine and look to see if it's empty. Then you open the breach to see if there is a round in the chamber. Why? Because the only way to know if a weapon is unloaded is to look yourself.
If you get an email that says, "This is true. I checked it out on snopes.com," go to Snopes (or one or more of the other such sites) and check it out yourself.
3. Don't hit the send button. Stop forwarding crap. Even cute crap.
4. If you just can't help yourself, at least give people on your forwarding list a chance to bow out gracefully. I guarantee some of them (me included) are deleting your emails unread. They don't want to hurt your feelings by asking you to stop spamming them with Osama Eats Kittens stories and cute baby goat pictures.
A simple, "If you don't want to receive these kinds of emails, no problem. Let me know and I'll take you off my forwarding list" would do.
That way, busy people with sensitive crap-meters can avoid being spammed by a friend who should know better.