Well-meaning folks see the fliers, which have enough of a smell of truth about them and which exploit commonly-held prejudices about the predatorial nature of drug use and drug users, and feel as if they are doing a good deed by spreading the warning around. After a few bad xeroxes, the fliers get retyped. The new versions are usually slightly different, which enables urban-legend fans to track the progress and origin of new epidemics through memetic means.
People enjoy spreading this warning so much that even when its baloney status is spelled out to them, they often insist either that it's really true anyway, or that even it it isn't true, it's a good idea to tell people about it just in case. Here's an example: "It was in very bad taste to think that this message is not something to worry about and that people circulating this message were over reacting!"
David Langness, the [Hospital Council of Southern California] association's vice president of communications, said the warning was then mailed to all member hospitals. "When we hear about these things, we don't attempt to confirm or deny them," he said. "We simply send it out to emergency rooms across the region in case they see a medical problem associated with this kind of drug." Los Angeles Times
9 December 1987
"They're like a chain letter," said David Langness, a spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, which represents about 250 hospitals in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties. "They capitalize on anti-drug hysteria, and as far as we can determine, they are a total hoax." Los Angeles Times
18 April 1992
|Why people spread this meme|
In the good old days, before the "blue star" meme found email, it was generally reproduced without explanation or disclaimer, and so it was difficult to discover the motivations of the people doing the duplication, except through news articles about the legend in which its spreaders were interviewed. When people spread the message in e-mail or on the usenet newsgroups, however, they frequently tack on a sentence or two about why they have decided to spread the meme.
These fall into a few categories. First, the "maybe it's not true, but in case it is true, I thought I should tell you:"
- "I don't know how much apparent danger there is. We just felt like we could not ignore if it was occurring. It was enough of a sufficiently gray area that I felt like I didn't want to take a chance."
- "I have not personally substantiated it, but the topic is too important to ignore out of hand."
- "[W]hether it is true or not, I thought that its content was serious enough that it warranted posting."
- "I'm just passing it on because if there is an inkling of truth, then it's important!"
- "I hope it isn't true, but I will talk to the boys about it anyway, just in case."
Another variation of this category is "I'm going to pass it on because it sounds important" (its accuracy is not a consideration):
- "The content is so important that I want to post it here."
- "I know nothing else about these drugs, I simply posted this message when I read about it today."
- "When we hear about these things, we don't attempt to confirm or deny them. We simply send it out to emergency rooms across the region..." [Los Angeles Times 9 Dec 1987]
- "I felt that if it was something that concerned the safety and well-being of our students, then the parents ought to know about it."
Then there's the "this is true" assertion sometimes masked by "we haven't seen it... yet:"
- "I don't want to start a panic wave, but I would like to point out a serious problem!" (Translated from the German)
- "We're not saying it is present in any particular community, location or school. We just want people to know that the possibility exists."
- "This may not be in your area yet!!!!! But I am passing it along as an awareness process."
- "I got this through the agency so it must be really going on in the streets."
And there are others that are in the same neighborhood as the above two categories:
- "I do not know the source or if it is true but it sounds real enough to me."
- "You feel like if it's happening, you want to let parents know. We didn't make a big issue of it, but we wanted to pass it along."
- "I was really concerned about this. I photocopied it and gave it out to some parents."
- "With drugs, if you're going to err, it's better to do so on the side of extreme caution." (given as a justification for spreading the warning)
- "I thought about the youngsters and the children who are entrusted to me. My spontaneous reaction prevented me from verifying the veracity of this 'information.' My good faith was abused and I may have been careless." (translated from the French)
The meme is so influential that some people, even when the urban legend status of the meme is pointed out to them, refuse to abandon belief. Some point out police busts involving blotter acid and insist that this proves the legend to be true. Others attack the motives of the people debunking the legend, like one mother who wrote: "...thank you for pointing out that it is an urban legend. I'm sure all the drug dealers out there will be happy to hear that."
Others who acknowledge the mythical status of the warning, still insist that it should be spread. A participant on a parents' newsgroup wrote: "Parents aren't necessarily concerned with truth, where it could be a gray area. We are concerned with our children's safety."
People are generally baffled as to why an almost completely inaccurate warning message like this keeps spreading. From the point of view of meme theory, it makes perfect sense. Without meme theory, though, people have less satisfying theories:
- Hoax -- Somebody is spreading this rumor as a sick joke, spreading panic through society and laughing behind our backs.
- Conspiracy -- People are spreading the rumor to further demonize drug users and dealers as a way of promoting escalation of the war on drugs. (Or alternately, drug enthusiasts are spreading blatantly false anti-drug information as a way of undercutting the credibility of anti-drug messages).
- Truth -- Maybe the legend is true after all, just slightly exaggerated.
- Prejudice -- People are hostile toward drug users and dealers and make up stories about their evil ways in the same way that anti-semites will concoct elaborate conspiracy theories about Zionists.
- Human nature -- Exchanging myths as if they were truths is a recognized aspect of culture and this is just another example.
While some of these have an element of truth to them -- prejudice does play a part in making the meme effective, elements of truth can sometimes be found in the legend itself, and spreading urban legends does seem to be a part of human nature -- looking on the "blue star" urban legend from a memetic point of view makes a lot more sense and leads to much more satisfying conclusions.
The main shift in thinking that needs to take place is to look at the spread of the legend not so much from the point of view of the people who propagate the warning, but from the point of view of the warning itself. Instead of asking "what made this person want to spread this warning," ask "how did this warning acquire elements that make people want to spread it."
Those memes that include elements that interest people and encourage them to spread the word will survive, reproduce and flourish at the expense of less attractive versions.
What we learn from urban legends is that people will assist in the spread of a meme regardless of its usefulness or accuracy if the meme is well-constructed and virulent -- that usefulness and accuracy are not necessary elements of a successful meme.