Chain Email

What is Chain Email?
How Should I Respond?
Why Do Chain Emails Happen?
Is a Chain Email Like a Virus?
Sample Chain Email #1
Sample Chain Email #2
On the Other Hand...
On the Other Other Hand...

What is Chain Email?

I use "chain email" to mean any email that suggests to the recipient that he forward it to "all your friends and relatives" or anything similar, thus forming a chain between the author of the email and each recipient.

Such emails are often scams of some sort — not necessarily financial, they could just be someone's idea of a bad joke. Or, if they were once "valid", the issues they could raise might be too old to worry about — but there's often no way to tell that just by reading the email!

The fundamental principle of such emails is that the intended recipient is valued not for their thoughtfulness, resourcefulness, careful consideration of issues, willingness to enter into a dialog, or even conversational abilities, but, rather, primarily for their address list and their willingness to react, rather than respond, to some hot-button issue.

Consider this quote when thinking about whether to forward emails that ask you to forward them:

"When sharing Web information with co-workers, family, and friends, I ask myself if the item or site has true value. Does it instruct, awaken, provide new insights, promote meaningful discussions, lighten burdens, touch the heart, heal? These questions help me to be humble and to respect others. They also keep me from sending items that would clog up someone else's mailbox or pollute his or her thought."
— from "Internet Essentials" by Sandy Portincaso, a sidebar article in Volume 102, No. 49 (2000-12-04) of the Christian Science Sentinel.

I would rather not be on the receiving end of emails that value my list of email addresses and my knee-jerk reaction over other qualities. I certainly won't forward such emails to anyone else, except to postmasters or other authorities to report potentially illegal scams (not the case in this example).

The only way I'm likely to respond to "chain" letters like this is to strongly suggest to whoever sent one to me that they not do that again, and that they not continue to send such emails to anyone else.

(But see this email (below) for another point of view, and see this (also below) for yet another!)

There are plenty of resources on the Internet (such as Snopes and Hoaxkill) that are useful in determining whether a particular claim is valid and showing how many claims flying around the Internet are not valid. Other resources are available to learn how to conduct oneself with discipline regarding email, so one does not become an unwitting accomplice in somebody else's scam.

My own take on some fairly reliable "markers" of such a scam, i.e. of a chain email:

This email has all of the above indicators, but not some others I haven't listed (in particular, it doesn't suggest sending money to anybody).

How Should I Respond?

Please do not forward chain email to anyone else.

If you find the issue or offer it raises compelling, research it yourself. Discuss it with a few very trusted friends, look up key terms using a search engine such as Google, but don't "experiment" by forwarding someone else's email to a bunch of your friends to see what their feedback is! Compose your own, so it won't say things like "forward this to all your friends". (But you might wish to give explicit permission to do so, as in "feel free to forward this to anyone you feel might find it worth reading". Note the difference — one kind of email is useful only insofar as people slavishly follow its directions, the other kind serves to encourage people to think and respond to an issue as they see fit.)

Remember, if you truly value your friends, you presumably see them as representing more to you than just contacts with yet more friends, and you value (or at least wish to encourage!) their ability to respond, rather than react, with their full mental and spiritual capacities to important issues.

Only if you keep your highest ideals regarding your friends in mind will you be able to compose an email that reaches them with a message of valuing them as being at least as capable of you are in determining the importance of an issue, deciding how to respond to it, and so on.

If you've forwarded chain email recently and you wish to apologize to everyone whose time you might have wasted that way, simply do that. If you feel it's appropriate to explain why you're apologizing, try "I've since realized that it isn't appropriate to forward such materials".

If you want to send a more complete explanation, include a URL for an appropriate web site, as in:

See <A HREF="">Snopes</A> or <A HREF="">Hoaxkill</A> for information on various sorts of chain emails being circulated.

If you really think your particular friends would value my input, feel free to include a URL to this page:

See <A HREF="">this page</A> for why I'm no longer blindly forwarding emails that ask me to do so.

Why Do Chain Emails Happen?

Keep in mind that people who initiate such emails, whether willfully perpetrating a scam or simply overreacting to some bit of news, usually don't have the credibility to convince lots of people to take some action.

So, they try hard to gain credibility for their message by encouraging everyone they can to "forward" it for them.

That can work as long as people with more credibility are willing to forward their claims without doing any investigation. People often take part in this fashion (and I'm only a bit embarrassed to admit I've probably done so in the — distant — past) because they think "well, this seems important, so although I'm too busy to research it for myself, I might as well let everyone else know, just in case it is important".

And it's the receiving of such an email from such a person that appears to give it more credibility, when in fact no such additional credibility has been transmitted by going through that person's hands, since they did no research themselves.

Chain emails sometimes suggest, at least implicitly, that the "normal" media has some reason for ignoring or obfuscating the issue. Or, that the audience for emails has interests that are much wider, e.g. more global, than other forms of communication (such as newspapers, radio, and television).

It can be pretty funny when a claim "escapes" from its chain-email prison into the "real world", as in when both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio were asked about an issue that had been chain-emailed about for years (and long-since dead) and both treated it as serious, or when a television station promotes a claim as "real" without researching it first.

Usually, though, major media outlets don't cover these "events" because they're not real, which is why the chain-email approach is taken in the first place!

Is a Chain Email Like a Virus?

If you're thinking of computer viruses, worms, etc., then, no, a chain email isn't quite like one of those.

A worm like "ILOVEYOU" uses automation to transmit itself (in the form of an email message containing the programming codes for the worm) to more and more peoples' computers.

In place of automation, a chain email uses the gullibility of each person willing to forward it without careful thought or research.

That means that chain emails can propogate more slowly than those viruses or worms that successfully exploit weaknesses in people's email software. But you could say chain emails are more "interesting" because they're exploiting weaknesses in people's thinking — they're more dependent on "social engineering" than typical computer viruses, worms, and trojan horses.

Of course, none of these are connected to "real-life" viruses or worms! People in the computer industry use terms like "virus", "worm", and "trojan horse" because they help characterize the behavior of certain forms of software ("software" includes emails, by the way!) in a way that's more easily grasped by those already acquainted with the beliefs regarding real-life viruses and worms.

So, there is basically no chance that any Internet-based virus or worm could become a "real" one — at least, not using today's technologies! (Genetic engineering controlled by computers, however, offers all sorts of interesting and dangerous possibilities....)

Sample Chain Email #1

Here's an email I received 2000-01-19 from a very trusted friend, who had forwarded it after receiving it from someone else, and so on. It triggered the creation of this page. (I've reformatted it into semi-readable HTML.)

Subject: Letter to the FCC

Please share this with everyone! We don't need to sit back and be passive on this one. This is really scary and once you read it, you'll realize CBS would even be forced to discontinue "Touched By An Angel" because they use the word "God" in every program.

Madeline Murray O'Hare, an atheist, successfully eliminated the use of Bible reading and prayer from schools fifteen years ago. Her organization has now been granted a Federal Hearing on the same subject by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, DC. Their petition, No. 2493, would ultimately pave the way to stop the reading of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the airwaves of America. They took this petition with 287,000 signatures to back their stand. If this attempt is successful, all Sunday worship services being broadcast either by radio or television will be stopped. This group is also campaigning to remove all Christmas programs, Christmas songs and Christmas carols from public schools.

YOU can help! We need one million signed letters. This would defeat their effort and show that there are many Christians alive, well and concerning in our Country! Please print this letter; then cut off and sign the form below. PLEASE DO NOT SIGN JOINTLY; such as Mr. and Mrs. EACH PERSON SHOULD SIGN ONE LETTER SEPARATELY, AND MAIL IT IN SEPARATE ENVELOPES! Be sure to put "Petition 2493" on the envelope when you mail the letter. This has to go out regular mail. It's important that you do it right away. Please E-mail this letter to all your friends and relatives and to anyone else you feel led to. Or photo copy it and mail it. Christians must unite on this. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY. WE DID ONCE AND LOST PRAYER IN SCHOOLS AND IN OFFICES ACROSS THE NATION. WE CANNOT LET THIS ATTEMPT SUCCEED.

(cut and send)
Federal Communications Commission
Washington, DC 20054
Re: Petition 2493

Dear Sirs:

I am an American and am very thankful for my American Heritage. Our forefathers founded this Country under the premise of a strong belief and faith in God and His principles. I am also very much aware of the role that our Christian faith has played in the freedom that we Americans now enjoy. Therefore; I protest any effort to remove from radio or television programs designed to nurture faith in God, or to remove Christmas programs, Christmas songs and Christmas carols from our public airwaves, schools, office buildings, etc.


Signature ___________________________

Printed Name ____________________________

Address ____________________________

(It isn't a coincidence that this email has all of the characteristics I identify as indicating a "chain" email, since I wrote up that list based on this particular email.)

Sample Chain Email #2

Here's another email I received 2000-10-27 from another very trusted friend under circumstances similar to the first. It has the advantage of having only "expired" about five months before I received it (according to this page), compared to Example #1, which had expired years earlier.

Note that the date given below is in the text of the email, not the header of the particular email sent to me! That means its author (the originator of this particular chain) composed and sent it months after the issue was dead!

Subject: Help

Date: Mon, 23 Oct 2000 16:21:34 GMT

Brazilian congress is now voting on a project that will reduce the Amazon forest to 50% of its size. The area to be deforested is 4 times the size of Portugal and would be mainly used for agriculture and pastures for livestock... All the wood is to be sold to international markets in the form of wood chips, by multinational companies...

The truth is that the soil in the Amazon forest is useless without the forest itself. Its quality is very acidic and the region is prone to constant floods. At this time more than 160.000 square kilometers deforested with the same purpose, are abandoned and in the process of becoming deserts.

We cannot let this happen. Copy the text into a new email, put your complete name in the list below, and send to everyone you know. (Don't just forward it because then it will end up with rows of >>>'s!!)

If you are the 200th person to sign please send a copy to:

(some email address in the .br, "Brazil", domain)

(Followed by 185 or so "signatures", people's names, addresses, and what looks to be birthdates for several of them.)

On the Other Hand...

On the other hand, some people have enjoyed the fruits of having participated in forwarding chain-email, or at least in having received one, and made new friends, as explained by someone in an email which I quote, and to which I respond, reproduced below with permission (and with modifications designed to prevent easy harvesting of email addresses):

From: <craig at>
To: <cache at>
Sent: Saturday, October 28, 2000 1:38 PM
Subject: Re: Chain Email

>While your points are well-taken and relevant to the vast majority of
>"chain email", I think easily of legitimate exceptions whereby
>acquaintances and "extended" friends whom I didn't know initially
>coalesced much more quickly than they could have otherwise to provide
>needed help on a scale none of them could have provided alone or with
>their immediate contacts.  The legitimate uses do exist. Perhaps your
>automated response could recognize the probably unselfish motives of the
>people passing the note forward, even if the originators may be

I touch on this on the web page to which I link in the message, in the
item on why chain email happens (or somewhere around there).

>Personally, I'm generally far less interested in the message of the
>email than in what the email tells me about who knows whom. I can think
>of probably 20 friends with whom I've reconnected  after scanning
>various chain email lists. The rebirth of those friendships was worth
>far more than the 10-15 seconds (literally) it took me to read the note
>and scan the names.

>Sometimes the name information has considerable value. For instance,
>while I don't know personally the vast majority of the people on the
>Brazilian note, I do know several and not just the last few names on the
>list. Knowing that they took the email topic seriously (even if the note
>itself were less than legitimate or out-of-date), tells me something
>about their interests and concerns and gives me a basis for expanding an
>existing relationship with them or possibly putting them in touch with
>other people in their country who have similar interests and values.
>What's the net effect? At the least, good people have ended up knowing
>each other. Others have found valuable allies in their efforts to carry
>out valuable work. A number of the people I know personally in this
>particular note, especially those in other countries and states, have
>both the resources and  time to devote to causes in which they believe.
>Now that several of them who didn't know each other previously are
>talking, it will be interesting to see what they can accomplish.

What you're talking about doesn't necessarily have anything to do with
"chain email".  So why accept chain emails on their own terms?

Yes, you're right, positive things *can* come out of frauds, even massive

They also come out of massive disasters, whether natural or man-made.
I can tell you all sorts of wonderful stories about snowstorms
(like the Blizzard of 1978) and hurricanes I've been in, but they've also
*killed* people.  E.g. I've learned to visit my neighbors without waiting
for a snowstorm or hurricane, that is, to take the good from the bad
and reproduce it as best I can.

Similarly, if I responded to an email that encouraged the USA to go to
war against Canada by saying "I won't participate in encouraging
violent warfare, and I ask others to join me in not participating",
you might say "hey, I met some of my best friends in foxholes" -- but
you're not invalidating my argument despite the obvious connection
between warfare and meeting lifetime buddies in foxholes.

Instead, why not just research the issue a bit yourself, as my web
page suggests, and then compose your *own*, non-chain, email, sending
it to those you think will be interested?  Then they'll *know* it came
from you and that you really *did* care about it.

The fact is, these days, anyone who just blindly forwards a chain
email without bothering to research the issue is someone who does not
really care about it so much as they want others to *think* they care.[*]
It can be a way to meet people with similar "interests", but the *real*
activists don't waste time sending or forwarding chain emails (except
when they willingly perpetuate frauds, perhaps), as they're too busy
getting "real work" done.

After all, if forwarding an email is so easy, so is looking up a web
site to see if it's got any validity before troubling their friends
and relatives over the issue!

Would you, or any of your friends or relatives, forward an email
announcing the death of a loved one, coming from an *unknown* source,
without first checking into the validity of the announcement?

  "Thought you might want to know, Danny's dead.  Well, I'm not really
  sure, and the guy who emailed me doesn't seem to have any connection
  to Danny that I can tell.  Maybe I'll look into it when I have time.
  In the meantime, I figured you, and everyone else I know, would want
  to see this email detailing his painful death.  Even if it turns out
  to be a complete fabrification, isn't it nice to touch base like this?"

Really, now, does that seem like a message sent by someone who *cares*
about the hypothetical Danny and his family?  Sure doesn't to me.

Remember, the chain email in question about the Brazilian rain forest
was, as composed, a *fraud*.  It misstated the case, even if it had
been timely, which it wasn't.  (Permitting individuals to cut into
more of their *own* bit of the rainforest does not equate to *deciding*,
for the whole country, to eliminate 50% of the rainforest, although it
could have that *effect*, assuming insubstantial portions of the
rainforest are under separate, e.g. governmental, control.)

There is no need to participate willingly or even unwillingly in a
fraud.  We can all do better than that.  And chain email is just a
very explicit, easily tracked form of the many ways we perpetuate
frauds in our society, so the sooner we kick the obvious habit, the
sooner we'll root out the deeper problems and solve them rather than
just talk about them in ways that are fraudulent, though well-intentioned.

> Perhaps chain emails fall into several categories. The ones that appeal
>to the basest values, greed, fear, hatred,etc. deserve an instant
>trashing. The ones that at least appeal to higher values may often still
>be valueless and manipulative in their stated message, but value may
>exist in discovering the shared values of those listed. The latter may
>be a case in which not only is the medium not the message, the email
>message itself is not the most important message. The most important
>message may be the identification of a group of people with possibly
>shared values. It's not a perfect list to be sure, but it may help
>people accomplish more in good directions than they could accomplish

Yes, but it's not worth the transmission of the fraud factor to do it.
There are too many other, *legitimate*, avenues to pursue, both on-line
and off.

>My father, who is a physics professor, would trash essentially all email
>finding almost nothing of value in the email messages. He's a
>tremendously bright and good man, but he sees messages as messages
>rather than as means of connecting with people.   On the other hand, I
>have regular conversations with the head of one of the major political
>parties in Norway and conversations with the family that runs a large
>company in South Africa because of such small beginnings as a name on an
>email. What's my impact on Norway? Small, but much more than it would
>have been- And I've learned much that I've been able to share with
>friends, managers, etc. here.

That's wonderful!  Sounds like you're *not* talking about "chain
email" here -- rather, you're talking about thoughtfully composing
your *own* messages.

That's exactly the sort of thing email *should* be used for, IMO!

But if you found them via chain email, that doesn't mean the chain
email *itself* has value or should be accepted on *its* terms (by
forwarding it).

Remember, someone campaigning against war is *not* campaigning against
the friendships developed by infantrymen sharing a foxhole.  It's the
same principle.  Standing up against war is about rejecting violence,
not rejecting friendship; standing up against chain email is about
rejecting fraud, including the assumption that one must take certain
actions if one believes in a "cause" celebrated by the email.

(And, consider this: if I'd just deleted the email, or blindly forwarded
it to my list of email addresses, instead of responding as I had, you and
I might never have "connected" in this fashion!  ;-)

Of course, chain email isn't as important as death or war, but that's
part of my point -- it's *never* important that you or anyone else
forward chain email!  Either ignore it, or research it and take your
own action, sending your own email as you see fit, but don't play
into the hands of the fraud inherent in chain email -- that forwarding
someone else's unresearched chain email is worth it.

>A lot of trash quickly scanned, a few priceless friendships, and perhaps
>a little more impact for good than I would have had otherwise on the

There are many ways to do that on the Internet that do not involve
perpetuating a fraud.

Further, if you are of a mathematical bent, you might want to consider
what would happen if even 10% of the Internet users had the attitude
that chain email -- the blind forwarding of anything that *seemed*
worthwhile -- was a good thing.  I haven't done the math, but I *have*
personally observed the effects in a much smaller sample.  It's likely
we'd be drowning in a blizzard of fraudulent, but well-intentioned, email,
in this scenario.

In other words, the fact that you don't have 1000 or more email
messages per day talking about all sorts of issues you don't care
about is due to people like myself who "say no to chain email" rather
than blindly forwarding it just because it "felt good".

After all, there are many *valid* issues we should know about as a
worldwide community, but that number is, hopefully, *finite*.  If even
10% of the people on the Internet emailed each other on occasion about
each such issue, I doubt the bandwidth would be sufficient.  Certainly
many people would wither under the onslaught of *truthful* email about
problems of worldwide concern.

Now consider what happens when you encourage *fraud* to propagate.
Remember that the amount of fraud is infinite!  That is, an infinite
variety of lies, deception, etc. can be created about any single valid
topic.  For example: the Brazilian rain forest ploy can be repeated
*after* it's no longer valid (as in this case); it could be replayed
for a variety of other countries (even some that don't have
rainforests -- many people would forward it anyway); it could be
replayed for the water table, endangered species of all sorts, etc. in
place of the rain forest; and so on.  (I should add that simple
misunderstanding of an issue can quickly turn into a fraud, even though
it wasn't intended as such.  The Brazilian rain forest email might
well have been an example of this.)

In short, we have more than enough *truth* to communicate to each other.
If we forward *anything* that "seems worthwhile" to all our friends (or
contacts), we'll all be swamped, and we'll have effectively given up
taking the pursuit of *truth* seriously, being too busy sorting through
the muck to do anything really useful.

As you'll discover, if you haven't already, the peril of the boy who
cried wolf applies here.  After a certain number of fraudulent claims
innocently forwarded to massive numbers of people, even the most
important issues will go ignored for too long.

I'm definitely not questioning peoples' good intentions, though -- maybe
just seeing one incarnation of what is hinted at by the old saying "The
road to hell is paved with good intentions".  :)

        tq vm, (burley)

P.S. How long have you been using email?  I'm curious because my
experience is that nearly everyone who's been using it more than 10 or
so years as part of their real work -- especially anyone who has been
subscribed to "lists" for the purposes of getting work done -- is 100%
against forwarding chain email, just as they are against spam.  (I've
been using email since about 1975, including on the ARPANET, so I have
personal experience with how quickly a list goes downhill if even
"just causes" that are off-topic are encouraged.)

P.P.S. Could I have your permission to reproduce this email (complete
with your quotes) on my web page?  I think people coming to my page
deserve to see your point of view, as well as my "rebuttal", such as
it is.  And it'd be easier for me to use this than to try and come
up with some essay getting across your points of view, which you state
quite well.

Regarding this paragraph, that's really "over the top" and inappropriate of me to so emphatically state, as fact, what amounts to pure speculation regarding other peoples' motives. Sometimes I do that in private email when focusing on a particular line of argument — generalize beyond the scope of the argument. For example, someone might forward a chain email while genuinely not caring what the next recipient thinks of them, but because they expect that individual might care enough about the issue to take action. (I left the paragraph unmodified so as to faithfully reflect the email discussion, not to offend anyone.)

In the email giving me permission to reproduce the above, he said he'd been using email for 6 years! That's actually pretty long in Internet time.

On the Other Other Hand...

Researching yet another chain email I received mid-April 2001, I found this web page that, among other things, appears to agree with my views.

Copyright (C) 2000, 2001 James Craig Burley
Last modified 2007-06-10.