Comment Comment and Features

When the Devil is in the email

'In 2011 approximately seven trillion spam messages arrived in our inboxes' (AP)

Last year I received an email from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) entitled “Important Blood Analysis”. The email read: “We have been sent a sample of your blood analysis for further research. During the complete blood count (CBC) we have revealed that white blood cells is very low, and unfortunately we have a suspicion of a cancer.”

Smell a rat? Well, so did I. Messages soon appeared on Twitter about a “sick email” targeting thousands of people across Britain, with warnings not to open it or click on the link as it most probably contained a virus. Yes, I’d been spammed.

Electronic spam is named after the tinned pink meat that would lurk on the larder shelf for years unopened and unwanted. I ate it once as a child at a friend’s house and every bite felt like chewing through a mattress of processed meat. The millions of unsolicited emails we receive each year, designed to contaminate our computers, are known as “spam” because of the famous Monty Python sketch poking fun at the food’s unwelcome ubiquity. It is a funny and fair analogy.

In 2011 approximately seven trillion spam messages arrived in our inboxes. According to the BBC, a staggering 90 per cent of our incoming emails are spam. Of course, not every one of these is harmful or malicious. So it’s common to dismiss spam as innocuous. Provided we know what to look for, we can avoid it, just as we do the neglected tin in the kitchen cupboard.

But when I recently received a spam message with the alluring title “The dirty little secrets women hide from men”, I began to wonder at spammers’ amazing grasp of human nature. Whoever wrote that line seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to provoke my curiosity and make me want to read on.

Glance at your spam folder today and there’s a high chance there will be Viagra on offer. I won’t sully these pages with the typical wording, but let’s just say the subject heading will be phrased in order to maximise men’s physical insecurities. And what about the man prone to jealousy, a sin the Church regards as deadly? Imagine that he has finally entered a relationship where he has kept this vice in check. How will he react to an email claiming to reveal women’s “dirty secrets”? On a good day he might laugh it off and instantly hit the delete button. On a weak day, he might not be able to help himself from clicking the link.

So far I’ve been lucky. I rarely fall for spam. But the nearest I came was when I received a Facebook message from a friend. “LOL!” it began promisingly. “Madeleine, you look so stupid in this video! Laughing my head off!” There was a link attached.

I panicked. After all, one of my most profound fears is people seeing me at my worst. Had I been secretly filmed or photographed? Had I become one of those unfortunate people who, completely unawares, become an overnight laughing stock on social media?

Luckily I hadn’t. I was relieved, but part of me admired the spammers’ skill. They had used a hacked Facebook account to target me where I was most vulnerable: that spot where pride and the terror of shame meet.

Does this uncanny ability to exploit human fears and insecurities remind you of anyone? Pope Francis talks constantly about how the Devil is real and is “the father of lies”. Accepting Satan’s existence is hard because it is difficult to understand. The dramatic depiction of a snake slithering through the Garden of Eden isn’t necessarily enlightening either. As Steve Coogan’s alter ego Alan Partridge once said when questioned by a Christian about temptation: “I think I’d be more preoccupied by the fact that I was encountering a talking snake. Whether I wanted an apple or not would be a side issue for me.”

But we all understand the internal whisper that we are inadequate, pathetic and unattractive. These thoughts often arise when we have actually discovered someone or something fruitful in our lives. Then follows the temptation to find material or vacuous solutions, to wreck our progress, rather than accepting we are made in the image and likeness of a loving God whom we can trust.

But if we can imagine the Devil as being a devious spammer, flooding our minds and hearts with malicious bunkum, we might be more inclined to ignore him in future.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (29/5/15).

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