I heard about it first on Thursday, February 26th, 2009 in the late afternoon. I was out cleaning up my minivan after an unusually messy week of kids, pop cans, and candy bar wrappers when my blackberry buzzed. A colleague was emailing me that 22 Christian families were being executed in Aghanistan and he was urging me to turn on the TV to see what I could find in the news. “Wow,” I said to myself, “that would be very sad.” I turned on the TV to scan the news services but found nothing related to the stories.
I googled “22 Christians Afghanistan” on my blackberry. There were results, to be sure, but none related to anything similar to a current event. My blackberry vibrated in my hand. Another friend, now forwarding the information to me via SMS, was asking me about this story. “Was it true?” I replied with a quick, “IDK,” and, leaving my minivan in the driveway, went into the house and popped open my laptop. A more extensive search again showed nothing relevant to today, but related hits about a 2007 incident in which 22 Korean short-term missionaries were held hostage.
The next day I was at the local university, studying, as my blackberry danced in its holster all morning long. People were sending me the message and urging me to pray. The actual text of the message was:
From: (Number Omitted) Msg: Please pray for 22 Christian misionary (sic) families that will be executed today in Afghanistan. Please spread to others fast.
By this time I was quite certain that it was a hoax. The most obvious reason was the total lack of news reports that related to an incident which typically would be pretty sensational. The message content also was suspect. It used the word “families,” which seemed odd, and misspelled the word “missionary.”
The amazing thing to me is how many times, in a four day period, I received this SMS text. I personally received it from over a dozen different phone numbers. Even more numerous were the emails asking me to verify the story (I work for a faith-based non-profit that sends people all the world). My blog, which is thematically tied to Christian missionary efforts, has received more comments on this story than any other (admittedly, a small number, but my blog is followed by about three people in a good month).
I think this shows the power of an emotionally charged hoax, spread via simple means, through a densely packed network. I am calling this an “echso-text” for “emotionally charged hoax spread organically” via (in this case) text messaging. I guess you could have an “echso-twitter” and we have all gotten “echso-email.” I like this term because it hints at the word “echo” and the latin-sounding “exo” (for ‘out,’ of course).
This story was certainly emotionally charged. I also think that the text message itself, by urging the reader to pass it on, contributed to its ability to spread. The fact that a precedent event involving Korean missionaries in Afghanistan also made the message somewhat more believable. The Christian community, particularly that segment involved in foreign missions, does tend to be somewhat dense. Yes, feel free to take that as an intentional double entendre. The web of relationships is tightly packed (sociologists call this a dense network), but this segment of people are often quick to believe what should probably be examined first.
I am sure that there have been many other similar echso-texts but this is the first one that I have been pulled into in this way.