The Crazy Uncle Email

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.

For example, I recently received this email, notifying me about “Mexican Drug Smugglers” using a car jack to lift up a section of the border fence in Arizona. Here it is:

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 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.”


  • Mike, without commenting too broadly on the whole email phenomenon, I was wondering if I could point something out about the content of this email.

    First of all, I presume that the political subtext of the email was in favor of enhanced border protection? That is my impression.

    In HBO’s recent documentary “The Fence,” which was produced in opposition to border walls, there were several videos of smugglers (or coyotes) using ramps and other devices to circumvent border walls.

    I believe that the video was taken from some sort of aircraft.

    The filmmakers’ point argument was that there is an enormous monied interest in crossing the border, and they can and will be penetrated no matter how they are fortified.

    So without knowing the background of the email or the video, I would respond: perhaps the video, even if it’s fake, does speak to concerns about border security; on the other hand, one could react to the video any number of ways.

    I guess that my point is that there is a legitimate debate to be had on the topic, but, as you say, the tone of these sorts of emails overwhelmingly suppresses any thoughtful discussion.

  • Sure: there is a reasonable debate to be had about border security. But there’s every reason to be skeptical about this video, which I think is a fake, (really, I think CAN’T be real) and as you say, things like this detract from effective and reasoned discourse

  • Just to clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that the video was real, just that the event that it purports to depict was plausible.

  • I wonder if it is just age. The propensity to forward among the people I know seems like it may be tied to computer or internet savvy. People who know about Snopes and such don’t send nearly the number of “new virus warning” and “really ridiculously bad news” emails.
    I particularly agree with the unspoken choral response implied by the “Can you believe it?” question. Spot on.

  • Thanks for using your blog as a novel medium to forward this chain mail to me and to get me to read it. I really appreciate it.

    I also find that older relatives are my chief source of chain emails, but I would argue that’s only because older people are more likely to use email than, say, Facebook, which is where chain messages are thriving today thanks to a younger though equally gullible audience. I’ve also seen a healthy dose of cross-pollination between FB and “traditional” email chain letters, like the recent one about late-night comedians turning against the president. I’ll spare you the details.

  • It doesn’t matter if it’s “email” or not, chain letters still perpetuate, on FB and other social networks even more than via email now. So maybe the older generation is still stuck on sending email forwards, but everyone else is stuck on spreading Facebook chain letters, which means though chain letters are a problem among older people, they are also as much a problem among the rest of the internet population too.

  • It is time for conservatives to wake up and stop with the chain letters.
    chainsmashers . mixxt . com / networks / content / index . Why%20Smash%20Chain%20Letters_%20The%20Mission

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