A word about online spoof stories and chain email


As I wrote in the Online Loser Guide, Internet is a wonderful thing, but should be used with lots of attention. Following the flow without thinking you just risk to contribute to lots of confusion, as shown in the example below (which is quite recent, even if for several reasons I was unable to publish it earlier).

On December 18th, 2009, somebody I know wrote to me and other people (this is an excerpt from a much longer message):

"Here's is some scarying information which I got via email and is directly verifiable on the [website of the Italian Senate http://www.senato.it/leg/16/BGT/Schede/Ddliter/testi/31554_testi.htm]. The Senate approved a so-called security package with an amendment from Senator Gianpiero D'Alia (UDC party) in the article 50-bis: "Repression of activities of apology or instigation to crime performed through the Internet"; next week this text will be voted in the Chamber of Deputies becoming article number 60.
According to that amendment, if any citizen used a blog to invite people to violate (or just criticize?) a law that he or she consider unjust, the hosting providers of that blog should take it offline within 24 hours from the moment when they receive an order to do so from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Punishment for the blogger would be prison from 1 to 5 years for incitement to, and defense of crime, plus more prison (6 months to 5 years) for instigation to violate public order laws or hate among social classes."

Impressing, isn’t it? The truth, however, is that in that moment (mid-december 2009) that information was partly false and completely out of date anyway, and had been so for almost eight months.

The so-called “D’Alia amendment” mentioned in that message (besides not being, at least in December 2009, in the Web page linked in the message itself) had been written ten months before, in February 2009. The amendment had been mentioned that same month in Punto Informatico, an italian ICT webzine, had been ferociously criticized in the same days all around the Italian Web] and generated a first series of very alarmed chain email. The tide of email alarms had been restarted in the first week of May 2009, filling again blogs and my own inbox with about 15 more copies of the text summarized above, partly from specialized mailing lists, partly from alarmed, but not-so-informed friends.

Only on May 13th, after frantic requests for confirmation on some activists mailing lists, word came in that there was nothing to worry about. That amendment had been canceled by another one (from the main party of the Government coalition…) since April 29th, 2009. So, eight months after that amendment had been officially canceled, we still had worried announcements going back and forth about it. Announcements that, besides being too late to be taken seriously were just wrong, since they said that you could “verify by yourself on the Italian Senate website” by linking to a page of that website that, at least in December 2009, contained nothing relevant.

Here’s what we can conclude from this true story, and a bit of advice:

  • This example is one of the thousands existing online that prove that online it is both extremely easy to spread rumors and twist them at will, and extremely difficult to see or receive corrections or updates. None of the people who hurried to send me that very urgent notification of attacks to online freedom of speech ever bothered to send me the updates mentioned above. Very likely, this happened because none of them knows that that particular problem doesn’t exist anymore, and none of them bothered to seriously follow the relevant discussions after forwarding that first email.
  • Never forward chain letters online without seriously, seriously, seriously thinking about it, even when it’s for an important and noble cause. The only exception is when you do commit to properly follow that topic in the future and immediately inform people of any relevant news.
  • Always check how complete, coherent and up to date your sources are
  • It is not enough to use the Internet to get or provide information just once every other month (that amendment or similar laws may come back in any moment)

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