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Discussion - Why do People Create Email Hoaxes?

At any one time, there is likely to be many thousands of completely bogus hoax messages travelling via email. Some are new creations. Others have been circulating in various forms for years.

I am often asked why people create such hoaxes in the first place. This is an interesting question that probably has no definitive answer. For example, what could possibly motivate somebody to write and distribute a fictional message about a dying child? Why would someone author a bogus warning about a non-existent computer virus or falsely claim that a well-known company was giving away money or products?

Unlike a scammer, whose efforts may be rewarded in the form of stolen funds or stolen identities, a hoax writer does not stand to reap such a tangible reward. The motives of a scammer are not hard to ascertain. Hoaxsters, on the other hand, have motives that are less transparent.

Perhaps people most commonly start hoax emails simply to see how far, and for how long, their nonsensical messages will spread. If they create a hoax that regularly has recipients clicking on the "Forward" button, they may feel "successful" by their own twisted standards. By pulling the wool over the eyes of a substantial number of Internet users, these pranksters may feel that they have "made their mark" on society. Perhaps it is something akin to vandalism out in the "real" world. Perhaps there are similar underlying motives that drive those who create hoaxes and those who spray graffiti or slash train seats? Such vandalism may seem completely pointless to the rest of us, but the vandals must gain some intrinsic value out of it - a venting of anger against a society they resent - a sense of power - just a cheap thrill, perhaps.

In some cases, a newly created hoax message might spread a lot further than the author originally intended. Some hoaxes start out as just a practical joke aimed squarely at a select group of friends. But the friends send it to their friends and, in short order, the message has irretrievably escaped into the wilds of Cyberspace. Some time back, a widely distributed hoax message about a group of Cambodian midgets fighting a lion started in exactly this way.

In other cases a hoax email might be originally sent out simply because the author misinterpreted something and genuinely felt compelled to let others know about it. For example, the infamous "Bonsai Kittens" website appears to have prompted one outraged visitor to create and send out an email petition calling for authorities to close down the site. However, the creator of the email petition apparently did not realize that the site was just a joke. In spite of the fact that nobody is really making Bonsai Kittens, this misguided petition continues to circulate and collect email addresses years after it was first launched.

Hoaxes might also be started solely for the purpose of discrediting a company or individual. For example, some virus hoaxes, such as the Elf Bowling hoax name a particular software program and may have been started simply because the author had some unnamed grievance and was seeking revenge.

Some have postulated that spammers deliberately create hoax emails as a way of subsequently collecting email addresses. Certainly, messages that get forwarded many times can accumulate a great many email addresses and spammers may well harvest these addresses for use on spam lists. However, generally speaking, I'm not convinced that spammers are the ones who actually create these hoaxes in the first place. For such an exercise to be successful (from the spammer's point of view), he or she would have to set up a mechanism by which the hoax messages were eventually returned after they had accumulated a large number of email addresses. Typically, email hoaxes do not have any such mechanism. If they did, it would perhaps make it possible to identify the original author.

As I said earlier, it is probably quite difficult to pinpoint one definitive reason why some individuals in the Internet community decide to create and distribute email hoaxes. Given the sometimes unfathomable complexity of human psychology, there is likely to be quite a number of reasons why people author email hoaxes and I've only touched on a few possible motives here.

Write-up by Brett M. Christensen