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Spam Attacks!
Don't propagate and attack out of kindness

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

The Setup

A friend and client of mine sent me a well intended email for me to "pass on" to others. (I will include the copy of the email at the end of this article). Basically the letter described how horrible the treatment of Women is in Afghanistan is, and about how they are stoned to death for accidentally showing any part of themselves (or even speaking) in public, and how they are all basically hiding out in their homes (with the windows blacked out for fear of being seen) and starving to death or dying of depression. It goes on to explain how it is so bad that all the world help organizations are leaving the area out of disgust. It does a very passionate plea to our humanity to help them out, by adding your name to a list of people, and forwarding this email to as many people as you can -- after 50 names are collected in the list, you are supposed to send the results of this "petition" back to 2 addresses (workers for the U.N.) to "help".

The Problems

About 20 warning bells should have gone off.

Whenever someone is trying to motivate you to do something (like email, call, etc.) you should think "why?" I'm not saying you shouldn't care -- just think first. What are they trying to get me to do, and why? What are the results going to be?

If I send this email to 5 people, and assume that everyone along the line has done the same, how many emails will that create at the end, and how valid will the information be? Well, lets do the math (roughly). If each person sent the email to 5 other people, for 50 iterations, that would result in something like 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 total emails (plus or minus a couple zeros). That is a hell of a lot of spam -- enough to hit every person on earth a few quintillion times. If you got one email a second it would take you a billion years to finish that task. At the end, everyone was supposed to hit these poor two email addresses with this "petition" -- and considering each email is about 10K long (with a long passage and 50 signatures) you'd be sending a whopping total of a decillion bytes of data (10^34). That would bring any server to it's knees and turn it into smoldering heap of whimpering silicon -- not to mention those poor individuals trying to get their actual email through that deluge of spam data. Does this sound like a compassionate petition to you? And what if you know more than 5 people? What if the average is more like 10 or 15 people? My computer screamed in agony at that math (actually it was just a measly 6 x 10^68).

And how about the information itself? A nice simple petition right? Well, if you are sending the list to 5 people, then your name is repeated 5 times, and will be included in every email from that point on. As will the people after you (in each of their respective branches). The end results are for each of the emails that the poor target victims gets, there is only 1 unique name, in each 10 kilobytes of data. Boy, I'm sure they really appreciate the heck out of that. That isn't a petition -- even if they cared (which presumably they do not), it would be a game of where's Waldo try to find the unique name (which is always the last one), the other 49 names in each email you get you will have seen before (or soon will). So there is no way to collect the names, even if they wanted to -- and of course email petitions are too easy to spoof names with, so no one cares how many names you can stick in an email.

The Truth?

Some Islamic fundamentalists don't exactly treat their Women the same way we do. I don't doubt that there are extremists in Afghanistan -- or that there aren't real problems there -- there are. The email is pretty much true about the problem itself. There are also pockets of ugly problems like that in Iran as well, and a few other extreme cultures. However, one of the altruisms about humanity is that inhumanity and intolerance exists everywhere (to varying degrees).

Of course, once again, when judging another cultures fanatics, it is always a good idea to shine the light of truth into our own shadowy closets and have a look around at our extremist fringe. We didn't exactly have equal rights for Women that long ago. (Though at least we weren't killing the flappers for being immoral). So we are what -- 50 or 100 years more advanced at most when it has taken mankind like 20,000 years to reach this point? Not exactly a significant difference. They'll change, or die out -- natural selection can be a good thing. And while some countries/cultures do barbaric things like Africa's tribal traditions which mutilating their Women's genitals (removal of extra "skin") -- we are only have to look at our own barbaric traditions of mutilating our infant boys genitals (though our circumcision is significantly less invasive, it is still just a barbaric tribal/religious mutilation). People in glass houses shouldn't be throwing stones. So lets turn a negative somewhere else, that we can't do anything about (except vilify some other culture) into a positive at home -- and look at how we can improve ourselves. Hypocrisy is universal -- as is externalizing problems and looking at someone else's issues so we can avoid addressing our own.

We should know the story is exaggerated -- and if the conditions of Women were as bad as they say in the email, then they would probably die off as a species/culture in a generation or two (as there would be no Women left). And being an all male (or nearly) society would probably change their attitudes about Women for the better (and maybe their attitudes about livestock for the worse). I don't really have a problem with the stupid cultures dying out in this way. I sort of feel the same about China, India and cultures when Americans are whining about letting them choose the gender of their children (through medical technology) because they favor boys. So what? Let their culture have a few generations of mostly men, and they will suddenly learn to appreciate the rarer commodity (Women). Women are probably less valued today because traditionally the Men all would go off to war, go hunting, kill each other in bar room brawls or high risk behaviors that got them killed -- and so traditionally made Men the rarer (and more valued) commodity. They'll get over it without our intervention. So I don't doubt it exists -- I just don't think that it will last very long. But I'm getting way off topic.

How it should be done

There are some that are going to think, "but couldn't the email be sincere?". It could be -- but it is an absolute moronic way to attack the problem. If I want to endear someone to my cause, I somehow doubt a chain letter and mountain of unsolicited emails (all with the same information) is going to make them my friend, or bend them to my cause. I am more likely to create an enemy to my cause, and myself. The means to an end matter. Spamming some people, and bringing their whole organizations email down and wasting tons of Internet bandwidth that could be better serving humanity doing just about anything else, is not a good means.

If someone wanted to draw your attention to a real problem then a solution would be to put up a website with a petition. The results of the website method would be a compiled list with each persons name only once. On the same website you could have far more information about the subject -- with more links, and verification, and so on -- in other words you could really convert people to your cause. And the creators of the website would have compile the list and have the names on file for good -- instead of the spam/chain letter where no one knows how many people (or who) really care. That website could even target the right people -- which is far more likely to be OUR leadership or politicians, rather than two poor SODs at the U.N. directly. Think of the amount of collective bandwidth that would save humanity, and how much an improvement in quality of message (and delivery) that would be. If the website wasn't getting enough attention, then spamming just the URL and telling people to add their name to a web petition would be far more productive, effective, and beneficial form of spam -- and it would take less than a few billion years to come to fruition.


Sheer logic dictates that this had to be either an attack (on the target email addresses) or some little spammer that wanted to start a chain letter just to see millions of well meaning people forward their trash around the world forever. It gives the small minded a sense of power for doing small acts. It took me a couple hours to send emails to the target addresses and verify that at least one doesn't exist (the other got no response). But the spammers prey on people and assume that they will be so impassioned by the message that they will drop all skepticism and reason, and any rudimentary research or thought, and forward the message on (because they trust the friend that passed the message on to them, and the message is so urgent that it can't wait for reason).

I certainly support ostracizing countries that have such disregards for civil rights. So I do respect the goal of making people aware of such problems, and trying to address them. I especially think the right messages should get out (like how radical change has costs, or how we should use external attacks to become more introspective and think about how to learn from our own mistakes and make our corner of the world a better place). But no matter how good the goal, Spam and email attacks on individuals is not a good means, and unlikely to influence them to a cause. At first I wrote an email that explained how the scam/spam/chain-letter worked, and told the person who sent the email to me to also send my email to who they got it from (and to who they had targeted it to) -- to try to anti-spam (up and down the chain) to kill the spam/break the chain. But that still was too much like spam/chain letter in and of itself -- it wastes bandwidth and is as only as good as the chain of people (and speed of their responses). A far better solution seems to write an article explaining how this stuff works -- and then whenever someone gets this type of email, then people can forward this URL to them and try to educate them, and try to break the spam-chain as quickly as possible.

Original Letter (my additions/comments are indented in red)

Date: 5/1/99 3:41 PM
Subj: Human Rights

Please spare a minute to read this mail. Thank you. This is a forward my dear messianic rabbi friend mailed me yesterday. I was hoping you would read it and see if you agree to signing it. Please just see what it reads, he is a good man and so I wanted to include you by filling you in on some wrong treatment of folks...

The government of Afghanistan is waging a war upon women. The situation is getting so bad that one person in an editorial of the Times compared the treatment of women there to the treatment of Jews in pre-Holocaust Poland.

Which Times? New York? L.A.? London? They don't want to put too much information or they'll be pinned down. In pre-holocaust Poland they were driving the Jews up into camps (Ghettos), building walls around them, and then starving them to death. I would hardly compare the two even if everything else said was 100% true (which it isn't). While I don't have much respect for the Press at large, I would doubt that most "Times'" are that bad at editing as to let that idiotic statement through.

Since the Taliban took power in 1996, women have had to wear burqua and have been beaten and stoned in public for not having the proper attire, even if this means simply not having the mesh covering in front of their eyes. One woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm while she was driving. Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man that was not a relative.

Always the Ad Hominem attacks (against the culture) -- or an attack by over-generalization. Did you know that one woman had this or that atrocity happen? No Kidding!?! Did you know one poor black kid was dragged to his death a couple years ago in Texas just for just being black? Did you know that one homosexual was murdered by a bunch of bat wielding teens in California (and elsewhere) for the same reason? I'm not forgiving these actions -- they are way, way wrong -- but shit happens. No culture can stop all of this. You shouldn't judge an entire society by a couple of the most extreme cases -- and instead by the norm. Most of these attacks get attention because they are not the norm. The facts are the norm over there is pretty bad, and deserves to be judged harshly -- this stuff is happening -- but be careful about judging a whole culture by the extreme actions of a few.

Women are not allowed to work or even go out in public without a male relative; professional women such as professors, translators, doctors, lawyers, artists and writers have been forced from their jobs and stuffed into their homes, so that depression is becoming so widespread that it has reached emergency levels. There is no way in such an extreme Islamic society to know the suicide rate with certainty, but relief workers are estimating that the suicide rate among women, who cannot find proper medication and treatment for severe depression and would rather take their lives than live in such conditions, has increased significantly.

Homes where a woman is present must have their windows painted so that she can never be seen by outsiders. They must wear silent shoes so that they are never heard. Women live in fear of their lives for the slightest misbehavior. Because they cannot work, those without male relatives or husbands are either starving to death or begging on the street, even if they hold Ph.D.'s.

There are almost no medical facilities available for women, and relief workers, in protest, have mostly left the country, taking medicine and psychologists and other things necessary to treat the skyrocketing level of depression among women. At one of the rare hospitals for women, a reporter found still, nearly lifeless bodies lying motionless on top of beds, wrapped in their burqua, unwilling to speak, eat, or do anything, but slowly wasting away. Others have gone mad and were seen crouched in corners, perpetually rocking or crying, most of them in fear.

Always the deep emotional appeals to get people interested an so impassioned that they stop thinking and just react. There is certainly lots of truth to this -- but this has been going on for many years, it isn't like this is new. The U.S. supported the Taliban (a political party) rise to power because it looked like the would serve U.S. interests. Ooops. What can WE learn, and what can we change for ourselves -- because sadly, it does little good to get angry about things you can't affect. The Taliban sucks. They will either moderate, be eliminated, or take themselves out of the gene pool. About the only thing we can do is watch.

One doctor is considering, when what little medication that is left finally runs out, leaving these, women in front of the president's residence as a form of peaceful protest. It is at the point where the term 'human rights violations' has become an understatement.

No offense but all social workers have a vested interest in making the problem as extreme as it can be. That will get them more attention, more money, and more influence. That isn't to say there isn't validity to their point of views, or that things don't really suck (they do) -- but they always exaggerate and everything has to be on the brink of catastrophe just to get people involved. I have never seen a quote as saying, "No, don't send money or aide, things are getting better".

Husbands have the power of life and death over their women relatives, especially their wives, but an angry mob has just as much right to stone or beat a woman, often to death, for exposing an inch of flesh or offending them in the slightest way.

David Cornwell has said that those in the West should not judge the Afghan people for such treatment because it is a 'cultural thing', but this is not true. Women enjoyed relative freedom, to work, dress generally as they wanted, and drive and appear in public alone until only 1996 -- the rapidity of this transition is the main reason for the depression and suicide; women who were once educators or doctors or simply used to basic human freedoms are now severely restricted and treated as subhuman in the name of right-wing fundamentalist Islam. It is not their tradition or 'culture', but is alien to them, and it is extreme even for those cultures where fundamentalism is the rule. Besides, if we could excuse everything on cultural grounds, then we should not be appalled that the Carthaginians sacrificed their infant children, that little girls are circumcised in parts of Africa, that blacks in the US deep south in the 1930s were lynched, prohibited from voting, and forced to submit to unjust Jim Crow laws.

Who is David Cornwell? Why no site? I found a Realtor and a few others -- none that had any value. I agree that we can judge another country by their behavior -- and they can judge us. But we don't need to go back to the 30s to see things that we should be embarrassed about. (Again, introspection and learning). The "mob rules" and killing people for the slightest infraction -- sounds sort of like intolerance and gang problems in the U.S. -- maybe we could focus on those problem.

Everyone has a right to a tolerable human existence, even if they are women in a Muslim country in a part of the world that Westerners may not understand. If we can threaten military force in Kosovo in the name of human rights for the sake of ethnic Albanians, then NATO and the West can certainly express peaceful outrage at the oppression, murder and injustice committed against women by the Taliban.

I agree that people should not be persecuted. And we should offer the Women safe passage and refugee status in the U.S. Of course they probably would not be allowed to leave -- and I think people would be surprised at how many would stay voluntarily. So it is a problem that we can't do anything about. What do you want to do? Bomb them back to the bronze age? They are headed their on their own. Few in that part of the world want us involved -- and would resist us if we tried to do anything. We have no political power over them, since the people in power don't care about anything we could do. Our actions trying to force change would likely only justify the fanatics cause (in their minds) and might actually help them consolidate more power. Expend your efforts on things that you can change.


In signing this, we agree that the current treatment of women in Afghanistan is completely UNACCEPTABLE and deserves support and action by the people of the United Nations and that the current situation in Afghanistan will not be tolerated. Women's Rights is not a small issue anywhere and it is UNACCEPTABLE for women in 1999 to be treated as subhuman and so much as property. Equality and human decency is a RIGHT not a freedom, whether one lives in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Attempts to make the spam seem official, and which won't do much. Of course we judge it unacceptable according to our cultural standards -- what is the U.N. going to do about it? Human decency isn't really a right, but lets not pick nits. After this there was a long list of people. I wonder how many were made up names, just to get the good pyramid spam started. Basically -- no one cares. Don't waste your time (or your friends time) by passing it on.

**** Please sign to support, and include your town and country. Then COPY AND E-MAIL to as many people as possible.

If you receive this list with more than 50 names on it, please e-mail a copy of it to:

Mary Robinson, <[email protected]>
High Commissioner, UNHCHR

and to:

Angela King, <[email protected]>
Special Advisor on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, UN,

Even if you decide not to sign, please be considerate and do not kill the petition.

Thank you.

Both people actually exist. So at least they did that much research. I was impressed at that -- that is more than usual. And the problem they were discussing actually exists for real -- and again, that is rare in spam/chain. But as I said, the methods are all wrong. Email should be for private conversations -- not a soapbox or megaphone.

So I urge the opposite of what they recommend ("do not kill the petition") -- when you get one of these chains/spams, not only kill the petition (and break the chain) from your branch down, but also go back the chain and explain the problem to people UP the chain. Send them the URL of this article so that they can learn. Ask them to send that information back down to all the people they sent the first spam/chain to. Help hunt down rogue chains, and people that are perpetuating this garbage and educate them. That will help end this annoying form of email from spreading then and in the future -- and it will educate people as to what is going on. (Both are turning a negative into a positive). If you care about the cause, then get involved,create a website, volunteer, or do something good -- just stop perpetuating the bad (spam).

Email is a valuable form of communication, as long as we can continue to use it and not fear huge irrelevant unsolicited emails every time we go to use it -- or that someone will target us to functionally eradicate our accounts (by overwhelming them) .

Created: 06/30/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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