If you were to assume that every email you receive with lots of “FWDs” in the subject line is flat-out false, you would be right way more often than not.

I dislike many things about the temporally and fiscally over-extended American presidential campaign season, but the the torrent of lies propagated by email pisses me off the most. It’s mind-blowing that so many otherwise-intelligent people pass along indent-mangled, Comic Sans-laden lies without thinking about it.

People place so much trust on anything they receive from friends and family, they never question adding another FWD to the subject line. Even people that know about sites like Snopes.com rarely take the time to validate email “information” there. I guess it’s easier to just pass along lies than question them.

How to detonate a misinformation nuclear warhead via email

Pressing forward probably feels like an insignificant action. It’s not.

Suppose you forward an email to 10 people, and then those 10 each forward to another 10, and then those 100 each forward to another 10…

If only 5 rounds of this occur, which can easily happen in a single day, as many as 111,111 people will receive the lie in their inbox:

You + 10 + 102 + 103 + 104 + 105 = 111,111

Another 3 rounds, and you’ve misinformed over 111 million people. Granted these are upper bounds because some people will re-receive the email. But still.

Given that recent presidents haven’t exactly been landslide winners, the virality of political misinformation near election day should be of major concern. If even a small fraction of people are influenced, that’s enough to affect an election outcome.

An idea for relief

I once wrote Google to recommend creating a Snopes.com lab for Gmail. I suggested that Gmail could flag emails containing known falsehoods. Google’s bots are already reading our email to serve ads and tell us we forgot attachments. Why not pipe FWDs through a Snopes search?

Of course, it’s not just an email problem anymore. There are many, many more social media users today than in 2008. Facebook is as much a dumping ground for untruths as email. At least Facebook is more open, increasing the chances someone will call out the lies.

Human nature won’t change any time soon. People will continue creating lies, and people will continue repeating them. But hopefully, one day, software can help mitigate technology’s new role as a lie accelerant.

Until then, just delete FWDs. Please?