The Brianna Denison fake email: a study in how things get out of control

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Wednesday February 27, 2008.

You may have gotten the email about the information on the Brianna Denison suspect that hasn’t made the papers. We got it—about four times. It talks about some details in the case that haven’t been reported and a situation where a young woman was followed by this person while she was out walking her dog. Yesterday, the RGJ reported that the letter is untrue.

Due to the number of people who probably got the email (and believed it, I might add) there is sure to be a backlash against the senders. That’s understandable. The community is up in arms right now about this case and any information is held tightly as hope for catching the killer. And anyone who spreads false information (read: hope) deserves to hear it from the people who are misled. The biggest problem in this instance, though, is that the person whose name is on the email is not the person who wrote it and started the ball rolling.

The name being forwarded all over town is Tekla Martin, an employee of the athletic department at UNR. Martin’s job is to maintain relationships with donors to the department, and being in that position puts her on the mailing list of some of the more influential people in this town. Martin received the email from someone she trusted, and passed it on to a few co-workers in hopes of helping them be aware of the overall situation and their own surroundings. According to Martin, she did not send it to anyone other than co-workers. From there, it was sent out to more people, and the email took on a life of its own.

When we first received the email, on Monday night, I immediately thought it was fake and Martin’s name was used to make it look real. It was verified first thing Tuesday morning and I would venture to guess that Martin spent the entire day Tuesday fielding phone calls and responding to emails about the message. And she did so after simply forwarding on an email she trusted to a few co-workers. And many of us trusted it as well. If we hadn’t, it never would have reached the point it did which required a police investigation and statement.

The article that appeared int he RGJ has led to the usual bevy of negative comments about Ms. Martin and people in general in the comments. Those comments lack perspective. It’s easy to say that anyone who forwards chain mails is dumb. In general, I agree. This, however, was not a chain mail. It actually originated with someone who was trusted and sent to a small group. From there, it just spread and spread.

Several conversations came up yesterday about the letter and I was in the process of putting something up to act as the base point for it. When I heard the police were involved I backed off because I figured something was forthcoming from them. They reacted quickly and go the word out that what was in the letter was not accurate. They and the RGJ deserve a lot of credit for working to swiftly become the best source in this matter, and their action has resulted in several emails to us this morning from people who had originally forwarded the letter to alert us that the letter was inaccurate.

The fallout is what concerns me the most about this. Tekla Martin has been named in the RGJ forum and her name is on the letter. If you put yourself in her shoes, odds are you’d have done the same thing. She received an email from someone she trusted, and her job is to deal with people most of us would also trust even without a previous relationship. I don’t know who the original source was, but the police do, and I’m sure if there is any action that is necessary, they’ll take it. So she forwarded that information on to some co-workers. We all know what happened from there.

In the larger picture, this was a small incident. But it can also serve as a way to see how a community responds to something like this. So far, the comments on RGJ.com are not promising. People with bones to pick and those quick to judge have made their presence felt. Perhaps if they had been trying to figure out whether there was any truth to this instead of forwarding it on it never would have reached so many people and become what it became.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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