Crazy uncle emails. You get ’em: a long long chain of forwards and re-forwards to lists of family members and friend and further down, total strangers: the subject header says something like “shocking video!” or “what are the politicians up to now!” or “you won’t believe this.” And most of the time, indeed I don’t: whatever has been forwarded is generally tendentious nonsense.
Just Google “Arizona fence car jack,” and see how many times it’s been reposted.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to think that there’s something odd about a group of drug smugglers deciding to film their operations in broad daylight.
I can hear it now:
Jorge: “Hey, let’s go smuggle some drugs across the border. I’ll meet you at the fence at noon”
Jose: “Great idea–I’ll bring a video camera, and film the whole thing. I want to make sure and get a shot of my new pickup truck.”
Jorge: “yes, and then let’s release the video, so that the authorities may prevent us from using this clever technique in the future.”
In what universe does that scenario make any sense? Clearly this video is not what it seems.
What is it about the chain email that causes people of a certain age to lose their minds? I get these emails from my older relatives, and what’s really odd is that most of them are highly accomplished people. We have doctors, and journalists; high ranking military veterans, and lawyers, and MBA’s: people who read, people who in their careers managed public affairs of great complexity and importance. I have the greatest admiration for my parent’s generation, all of whom are mentally still extremely sharp.
But something about the chain email causes temporary mental collapse. And no matter how many times the fakery in these things is pointed out, no matter how may links to Snopes.com you provide, they keep being forwarded.
The phenomenon is more pronounced among conservatives than among liberals, it seems to me, and I’ve managed to convince my more conservative relatives to take me off the distro. But alarmist email rants, cc’ed shotgun style, are a general phenomenon of older people.
There’s the obvious fact that the emails seem to confirm pre-existing belief. For example, I often get emails from relative X, who loves the idea that Americans have lost all sense of personal responsibility, and that this is proven by frivolous lawsuits. The subject header will generally say something about “can you believe this?” The unspoken premise is always: “of course you can! you already do!” The email is taken as confirmation and I suppose the more forwards it gets the more this confirmation bias is increased.
But there must also be something about email, and its combination of immediacy and selective public presence. It’s both public, in that there’s a distribution list, and private, in that it’s a community, a presumably like-minded community.
It also may have to do with the way email functions in your life. For most people working now, email is a chore and a burden and a never-ending stream of new obligations. Email compels a response; the inbox is a constant reproach. So a chain email talking about Obama’s Kenyan citizenship is not just annoying because it’s baseless, mean-spirited and dumb; it’s annoying because it comes in the context of a bunch of work obligations.
If you retired in 2000, though, you missed most of the era when email and texting replaced phone calls. It still has urgency and novelty.
I suppose these emails play exactly the same role that theatrical melodrama once played, in that they confirm what you already want to believe, and in that sense the more outlandish and absurd they are, the more plausible they seem. It’s like the digital equivalent of professional wrestling, with cartoon bad guys and cartoon good guys and preposterous claims that can’t possibly be actually true, but nevertheless replay the drama of good and evil. Thus the crazy rant/charivari quality of these things, with the distro list forming a virtual crowd.
This is one instance where I really wish older people would be less “forward-thinking.”