5X5 Episode 20

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5X5 Episode 20
Chainletter e-mails not spread virally
18th May 2008

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

5X5 19 5X5 21
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
Guest
M: Mike Lacelle
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SPAM Chainletter e-mails do not spread as virally as thought[edit]

Science Daily: How Did that Chain Letter Get to My Inbox?

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight's topic is spam email. Have you ever gotten a chain letter in your email inbox? These are said to spread virally, meaning that they spread from one person to many. However, new research conducted in part by Jon Kleinberg of Cornell University and David Liben-Nowell from Carleton College suggests that these types of email chain letters don't spread that way, that they primarily spread from one person to the next.

B: What was interesting to me was the impetus for this study. He took it from the point of view that he considered things like how fads and opinions and word-of-mouth in a general sense feed back into a broader social processes, like the formation of social opinion and changes in social conventions. So he was looking at it using new mathematical tools and all this social networking data that we now have. From that sense, he was trying to look at it from how these things can affect social conventions in society. I thought it was an interesting perspective he had or at least the reason why he took up the study and it was an interesting result. Unexpected.

S: Yeah, it was unexpected. The whole term 'going viral' or 'viral campaign' is based on this notion of—one person gets infected, so-called, and then it spreads to many others. They found that 90% of these emails are actually spread from one person to the next. Also, the other interesting fact that came out of this was that if you receive a chain letter, even though you may have like a friend or somebody in your email address, they may get that same chain letter through 100 intermediaries between you and them. That these emails tended to follow a very circuitous route.

J: So that whole bit about—you know, you have to send this email to ten people and they promise bad luck to come down on you and everything. I guess that thing was started to convince people to pass it along and everything and I actually still, to this day, get emails like that where people are saying you really should send it and everything and believe in the whole magical effect of the chain mail.

M: There's also some that say that they'll actually—For example, there's one that said that Bill Gates was tracking a certain email and the amount of times it was passed on he would donate a dollar to a certain charity or something like that. You can look those types of emails up on snopes.com—they're usually—actually, they're pretty much always false. There was another one about a girl who had a terminal illness and every time the email was forwarded they would donate a dollar to the research fund. Again, that turned out to be false from Snopes.

E: And the ambassador from the Sudan has two million dollars to deposit in your account as long as you—

S: That's right.

B: Yes.

E: —send him all of your vital information.

B: Steve, getting back to your circuitous route, there's another important aspect to that. Even though—like you were saying, even though you might have six degrees of separation between you and another person, it could be 100 generations later by the time you get it. In that time, because there's such a delay, the message can subtly morph, or maybe not so subtly morph, into something very different than what it originally was, which can also make it more pseudoscientific or more paranormal-oriented.

S: Yeah, interestingly, people may often add their little tidbit to it so that there's multiple iterations or generations of these spam chain letters. Basically anything you get as spam is likely to be not true. And you brought up Bill Gates and Microsoft—any letter that mentions any really high-profile name is certain red flag. So if it talks about NASA or Microsoft or Bill Gates or anything like that, you can almost be certain that it's not true because those kind of rumors or tall tales or urban legends do tend to latch onto some kind of famous name or institution. That's always a good indication that it's probably not true.

E: They do, and I find that they ride around the corporate circles a lot, Steve. They get—you know, these corporations, obviously with sometimes thousands, tens of thousands of employees. And some of these are so old, I've been seeing them for a decade now.

S: The two emails that they tracked in this study originated in—one in 1995, which was just a petition to support public radio. The other one started in 2002, which was a petition in opposition to the Iraq War. The other thing they showed is that these were petitions that were asking people to sign them, which, of course, are always worthless because you never know how many people have signed them, how many times they've split off. There's no real way to collate all the signatures at the end, so these kind of petitions are always... whether they want you to sign it again are just worthless. They're not legitimate.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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