Hoaxes, Urban legends, Chain letters and Spam are among the persistent ills of the internet. Recently I have been receiving quite a bit of this "genre". In some occasions, I have responded somewhat bluntly. My apologies if I have hurt someone's feelings.
However, my concern with this kind of communication goes beyond plain irritation. As annoying as these mails are, in my eyes they signify a much deeper problem.
I think we all agree that participating in a democratic society requires accepting responsibility for your actions and words. When sharing information with the community, this means that you have reasonable basis to believe that this information is indeed true. Suppose I would call a few of my friends and tell them that I heard that so-and-so has been involved in criminal activity, and therefor should not be trusted with community funds. You would expect me to have hard evidence for this fact, or else would consider my actions severely unacceptable. Now, suppose that when considering several sites for our school, I circulated a rumour that a particular site is located above a unique geological formation, which guarantees us an oil well in our back yard, which would fund our school for the next 100 years. In this case, not only would you see my conduct as inappropriate, you would also politely suggest that I seek urgent help.
Why is it, that when we go into "cyber space", we let down all social and cognitive defences?
Do you really think that there are computer viruses which, when you say cheese, jump out of your computer and bite your nose?
Do you really think that Bill Gates has pledged to send you 240,00$ if you will but a sock on your ear?
And do you really think your kindergarten friend knows about a "serious deadly internet worm that spreads faster then light" but Ha'aretz, NY Times, and all the anti-virus companies haven't heard of?
Now, I know what some would respond: "What's the harm? I sent you some information. You judge it, and if you don't believe it, hit the delete key." Well, the same argument goes for all the "real world" examples I gave. Would you accept it there? Probably not. Because in the real world, if you say something, YOU are responsible for your words, not the receiver. Well, its time to realize - this is the real world too. The same norms apply here. The only difference is that verifying is much, much easier. Usually, a 5 minute trip to google or wikipedia would do*. Which means that you have absolutely no excuse for spreading disinformation and other junk.
*: If you read Hebrew, Hanan Cohen's site is a useful place to go as well.