Pssst... Wanna hear a rumour?

Monday, 12 July 1999

I have a friend whose brother knows the man who owns the mule that Sissy Spacek rode in Coalminer's Daughter who told him...

Some of you may have heard the name Craig Shergold. Back in 1987, doctors told seven-year-old Craig that he had cancer. Craig decided that he wanted to write his name into the Guinness Book of World Records by becoming the person to have received the largest number of get well cards in the history of humankind. He appealed to people to send them in to the Royal Marsden Hospital in England where he was being treated. The Atlanta-based "Make a Wish" foundation spread the word and the postcards and get-well cards began to roll in. By 17 November 1989, the world record had been broken.

The good news is that Craig Shergold is alive and well and recovered from the non-malignant tumour after surgery. The bad news is that he is still seven years old and still has cancer - at least according to yet another e-mail appeal that dropped into my electronic mailbox over the weekend.

It's a virus, really. Every year, a new crop of e-mail users enter the arena, receive a copy of the Craig Shergold message, and promptly distribute it to everyone they know with an e-mail address.

It's probably in the nature of human beings. I think we don't do enough questioning of information and I don't think we are careful enough with the value judgments we make of the information we receive. This has nothing to do with how intelligent we may happen to be. You'll find Ivy League or Oxbridge students circulating electronic chain letters promising that Bill Gates is going to send them money. Here's another example doing the rounds:

"Do not delete before reading - very important be careful! Not a joke! Be careful at movie theatres! Please check your chairs when going to the movie theatres!

"An incident occurred when a friend's co-worker went to sit in a chair and something was poking her. She then got up and found that it was a needle with a little note at the end. It said, 'Welcome to the real world, you're HIV-positive. Doctors tested the needle and it was HIV-positive.

"Be cautious when going to the movies!!!!! If you must go to the movies, please, please check!!!!! One of the safest ways is by not sticking your hands between the seats, but by moving the seat part way up and down a few times and really look!!!!! Most of us just plop down into the seats ..."

When this piece of drivel hit our screens in January, an advertising colleague in Gauteng, Andre Steenkamp, had this to say in response:

"Last week when I was abducted by Aliens we were discussing the merits of e-mail chain letters with visitors from the Argon Tri-Delta galaxy who experienced the same situation 2250 years ago when their version of the Internet was first introduced. It took them approximately 0 hours of research and about 45 seconds of logical deduction to work out that the Tweety Bird does not give you luck, the CEO of the largest computer corporation is not going to give you a prize, movie companies aren't going to give away money for nothing and if you wake up without your kidneys or other vital organs, you are probably dead and deserve it for hanging around suspect bars talking to strangers. They did advise me though to rather go to upmarket cinemas where the patrons use designer drugs like cocaine and E, thereby reducing the risk of sitting on a contaminated needle."

Bravo! This man should be running the SABC.

The Internet hasn't changed the basic rules: There are credible sources of information, and there's gossip. Beware of anonymous sources, unattributed quotes, lack of basic facts such as who-what-where-when-why-how and so on. Most of us know this already.

For the rest, send your cheques to PO Box 11, Cape Town, 8000 marked for my attention.