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Internet Virus Antidote

Could you be unwittingly spreading a virus of the mind? Passing on lies and misinformation to your friends?

Could you or someone you know be a victim of an Internet Mind Virus?

You could. But never fear: the antidote is here. You've seen messages promising money, luck, or sex -- as long as you pass them on. Messages warning you of a dangerous new virus, and begging you to tell your friends, quick! Or perhaps you've seen a topical joke that you wanted to send to all your friends -- send it fast, before they hear it from someone else!

All of these are viruses. Not computer viruses, but MIND viruses. These messages all have one thing in common: they contain compelling messages, or memes, that grab our attention and persuade us to pass them on. These memes play on our fear of loss, or embarrassment, or appeal to us with promises of sex or money or good luck. Some of messages make us feel good about ourselves because we believe that by passing on a plea for help or signing a petition, we're doing a good deed.

And sometimes we are. A mind virus or meme is not by itself a bad thing. But would you pass on a mysterious computer virus to a friend? Of course not.

A powerful Internet Mind Virus compels us to re-send it to others. The message spreads explosively as we and many others help it reproduce. The information in the message -- whether true or false, useful or not -- becomes widespread, infecting many people.

Most of these viruses of the mind are spread because they are intriguing or frightening or inspiring, and not necessarily because they're true. That's the problem.


What You can Do

To stop the thoughtless spread of Internet Viruses, we must all begin by thinking. Refrain from forwarding anything you have just received and whose origin you don't know. A message is not true simply because it says it is. The government or Disney or the USSR has not issued a statement just because someone says they have. Words are cheap.

A mind virus that instructs you to forward it right away is a mind virus trying to reproduce.

When it comes to passing on an internet message, don't let your emotions be your guide. Look to actual authorities to validate rumors. Look to virus experts to validate viruses.

Jokes are the most innocuous of Internet Viruses, because they at least do not pretend to be true. But sometimes they do pretend to be funny. Ask yourself more than once if your joke is really worth the time of all the friends you are forwarding it to.

The important thing is to realize that every person who spreads a virus keeps it alive. Once spread, Internet Mind Viruses -- even the ones that are the worst destructive lies -- are hard to kill.

Not all Internet Mind Viruses are consumers of faith, trust, and time. Some give back more than they take. A good joke or a pointer to a worthwhile web site can make someone's day.

But before you forward something, hesitate and think. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the message tell you to act by resending it?
  • Does the message use an authoritative or newspaper-type tone?
  • Does the message tell you to be afraid of something?
  • Does the message offer you sex or money or good luck?
  • Does the message invoke your feelings of pity or generosity?

Before you forward a virus message, or a message about someone who is in trouble and needs your help, or a warning about organ theft rings or payphone finger traps, check the following Urban Hoax web sites. Remember, when you forward urban hoaxes as if they are real, you look foolish. Some viruses are very good at getting you to do that.

Finally, if you still have a question about the truth of an email you've just received, you may want to check out the Email Facts of Life.


The Antidote

This page is a counter-virus, so when you receive an Internet Mind Virus from someone, forward this page or a link to this page:

The only real way to combat Internet Mind Viruses is to improve our mind's ability to resist Internet Mind Viruses, and to help your friends do likewise.

While not all Internet Mind Viruses are destructive, even the least of them eats the time and attention of you and everyone to whom you send it. Before you forward a message, make sure it's true, and make sure it's worth the cost.

For further information on memes, see Meme Central, your source for all the latest information on the science of memes, the DNA of human culture.

For recommended reading on memes and memetics, try the Memetics Bookstore.

And if all else fails, here is:


The Ultimate Internet Mind Virus

I know this guy whose neighbor, a young man, was home recovering from having been served a rat in his bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. So anyway, one day he went to sleep and when he awoke he was in his bathtub and it was full of ice and he was sore all over. When he got out of the tub he realized that HIS KIDNEY HAD BEEN STOLEN and he saw a note on his mirror that said "Call 911!" but he was afraid to use his phone because it was connected to his computer, and there was a virus on his computer that would destroy his hard drive if he opened an email entitled "Join the crew!"

He knew it wasn't a hoax because he himself was a computer programmer who was working on software to save us from Armageddon when the year 2000 rolls around. His program will prevent a global disaster in which all the computers get together and distribute the $600 Nieman-Marcus cookie recipe under the leadership of Bill Gates (It's true--I read it all last week in a mass email from BILL GATES HIMSELF, who was also promising me a free Disneyworld Vacation and $5,000 if I would forward the email to everyone I know).

The poor man then tried to call 911 from a pay phone to report his missing kidney, but reaching into the coin-return slot he got jabbed with an HIV-infected needle around which was wrapped a note that said "Welcome to the world of AIDS."

Luckily he was only a few blocks from the hospital--the very one where that little boy who is dying of cancer is, the one whose last wish is for everyone in the world to send him an email and the American Cancer Society has agreed to pay him a nickel for every email he receives. I sent him two emails and one of them was a bunch of X's and O's in the shape of an angel (if you get it and forward it to twenty people you will have good luck but ten people only will give you OK luck and if you send it to less than ten people you will have bad luck FOR SEVEN YEARS!)

So anyway the poor guy tried to drive himself to the hospital, but on the way he noticed another car driving along without its lights on. To be helpful, he flashed his lights and was promptly shot as part of a gang initiation.

And it's a little-known fact that the Y1K problem caused the Dark Ages.

(author unknown)

Sonia Lyris and Richard Brodie contributed to this page.