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May 19, 2005

Do Spammers Lie or Bullshit?

Anti-spammers have long held the view that Rule #1 of spam is, "Spammers Lie." So deeply ingrained is this rule, that Rule #2 is, "If you think a spammer is telling the truth, see Rule #1."

I raise these old saws because of the recent attention given to a book by now-retired Princeton philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt. The book, titled On Bullshit, is a reprint of a 20-year-old classic essay of the same title. Thanks to the resurgent interest in the essay and attendant publicity, it's now almost okay to say [titter titter] "bullshit"—unless you're on 60 Minutes in prime time on Sunday evening, which case you have to blur the "shit" part in every visible image of the book's cover or spine. Thank goodness for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where the whole word may be aired (after 11PM, that is).

The heart of Professor Frankfurt's essay is establishing the distinction between a lie and bullshit; between a liar and a bullshitter; between lying and bullshitting. When I look at a few spam messages that either landed in my "suspects" bin or had the luck of slipping through my filters and arriving in my inbox, I wonder if spammers lie, as the Rules say, or if they bullshit.

As I point out in Spam Wars, it is foolish to attempt to characterize a spammer as a clearly drawn stereotype. There are all kinds of spammers. For purposes of this investigation, however, I'll consider three fairly typical unsolicited messages whose content I noticed today:

  1. The subject reads, "Re: did you get my email yesterday?" but the message body asks a different question: "Have you thought about taking Viagra but decided it wasn't worth the risk?" and then directs me to visit a Web site. The message originated at a comcast.net account in the state of Washington, very likely a zombie PC.
  2. The subject of the next message reads, "crucified with christ;". A recipient might then be surprised to find a mortgage lead message in the body: "Thanks to a private nomination, there are potentially three deals that will be offered to you." It's signed by Tim Laird, Senior Business Consultant - Low-Rate Advisors Inc." The message originated from a server in China.
  3. The third message has no subject, and begins: "Dear Friend, Permit me to inform you of my desire to go into business with you. I got your name and contact on the Internet during my search for a sincere partner." The message goes on to ask my help in freeing up $11.5 million that his late father had stored at a security company in Europe—for which I'll get a 20% cut. This message originated from an open proxy in the Philippines.

Frankfurt says that both the liar and bullshitter "represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth." The differences between the two can be found in the execution of their means to their ends.

The liar knows the truth but tries to "lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality." A key point is that "we are not to know that [the liar] wants us to believe something he supposes to be false." In contrast, what the bullshitter hides "is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him." His art is in the telling, not in a conviction to the reality or unreality behind the tale.

Let's look at the spam messages to see where the senders land in the continuum between liar and bullshitter.

In spam No.1 the Subject: line starts with "Re:" to lead the recipient to believe it is a reply to an ongoing communication with the sender. The question in the line is something that anyone could have sent, even if the name of the sender in the From: column of the inbox list doesn't ring any bells. Upon opening the message, an unsuspicious recipient sees the disconnect between the subject and body, and realizes that the sender loaded the Subject: line with at least two lies that are counter to reality.

The Subject: line of spam No.2 probably perplexes most recipients. If the subject were truthful, one might expect a message having some connection with religion. Instead we find a mortgage-related spam message. The body tells me I was privately nominated to have three deals (presumably mortgage offers, based on the rest of the message) presented to me. I did a Google search on the company name in the signature. The only hits with that hyphenation were copies of the same or similar message body either reported as spam or sent as spam to mailing lists (they got posted as messages). The names in the signatures were different, and the Subject: lines were also different selections of three seemingly random words. An unsuspicious recipient would not know from the message that the Web site the link navigates to is not a lender or broker, but a firm interested only in the information filled out in the form—to be sold for tens of dollars apiece as a lead to mortgage brokers. The sender who gets a recipient to fill out the form has succeeded in not letting the recipient know that the exchange was based on lies.

Spam No.3 comprises an elaborate tale. It begins with the claim that my email address came up in an Internet search for "a sincere partner." Unless Google has a new search and ranking service (sincerity.google.com?), how could a stranger make such an evaluation? So, the message starts out with a lie, and continues to tell a string of more lies to build an elaborate, but entirely phony scenario. Actually, the lies of this tale are in the eyes of a recipient who believes the story. I can't believe that the 419 (advance-fee) scammers who write these letters see each other as anything more than bullshit artists. To the senders, the details of Miriam this or Abu that or XX MILLION U.S. DOLLARS are of no consequence. The bullshit is not being used to displace something else that is true—other than the absence of any story at all.

I think we have to look at the lie vs. bullshit issue from two different frames of reference: the sender and the recipient.

It's clear that the senders of all three spam messages lied at some point to avoid the truth be revealed. Spammer No.1 wants the recipient to open the message, something that would be less likely if the Subject: line said something about Viagra. Spammer No.2 doesn't want his recipients to know that he's not a real mortgage broker, nor that the identical message went out to thousands of people who also got a "private invitation." The same goes for Spammer No.3 who tries to make each of the thousands of recipients believe that he or she is the one chosen "friend" to receive the offer.

And, yet, when I see each of these messages, I am quick to yell "bullshit!" Why? Because having seen thousands—perhaps tens of thousands by now—of the same kinds of messages over 10+ years, I can assure the senders that they fail to make me believe the lies they attempt to convey.

Professor Frankfurt notes an interesting distinction between bullshit and lies:

We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.

This is where I see the issue of frame-of-reference playing a big role in the debate. A liar can continue to spew lies, but the ones hearing the output are not obligated to continue regarding them as lies. The first time you read a 419 or phishing message, you may be fooled by the lies transmitted by the liar. The first time you realize those messages are lies (perhaps after it's too late), you are outraged. After that, you see each such message as nothing more than bullshit, and shrug it off. In the mind of the recipient, the lie becomes bullshit and the liar becomes bullshitter.

That leads me to think about why I spent a year on my own nickel to research and write Spam Wars, why I speak out about the spamming and scamming that's killing email, why I take the time to report spam, and even why I find it necessary to vent on my Web log. My heart goes out to those recipients who are being lied to, who don't yet know or know how to treat garbage email as bullshit. I guess you could characterize my aim as raising the Bullshit Quotient (BQ) of all email users. A liar who is regarded by his intended victims as a bullshitter won't be able to make a penny from his attempts at lying.

Posted on May 19, 2005 at 09:54 AM