Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, two filmmakers from Lebanon, have been collecting scam emails since 1999. In interviews, they say they don’t know why they started, but that something in it “spoke to them,” and so here we are. The couple compiled some 4,000 plus emails into an installation piece in 2014.
Emails like the Nigerian Prince scam, or the “Jerusalem Letter,” follow a particular format. Each takes a foreign/global conflict, offers an element of personal strife (my father has died, my country is under siege, etc.) and makes direct reference to the goodness of the scam-receiver. Having opened the scam, scam-ees can either respond offering to help (get scammed), delete the email (avoid scam), or respond knowing that the conditions are fake and the intentions malevolent (bait the scammer). This is then a complex social structure, taking place entirely through digital space, which we often entirely overlook. Place is essential to the scammer. Creating the image of place in the minds of the reader then creates a kind of kinship or bond between the scammer and the scammed: the real victim knows where the perceived victim is “coming from,” in more ways than one.
Brian Kuan Wood has an interesting interview with Hadjithomas and Joreige in the e-flux journal’s 2015 issue The Internet Does Not Exist. While describing their project and their findings, Hadjithomas says she sought out to find “what makes stories credible or not. For example, corruption is taken to be much more plausible in certain parts of the worl than othere… Scammers could say, for instance, that there is corruption in France, in London, in the States,” “But it wouldn’t register in the same way,” Joreige finishes. Here again we see physical place bleeding into digital space through the exploitation of cultural narratives about place.
Scams are often viewed in isolation, or in specific categories constructed through the scam’s original location and the amount of damage it may have caused. But taken as a whole, the scams Hadjithomas and Joreige have collected “delineate a map of recent geopolitical conflict, social unrest, and economic upheaval.” And the piece also strikes a note about narrative and storytelling. Scams, after all, are stories. They use “micro-narrative devices. “They are stories designed with malicious intent, and they are deceptive, often outright false stories, but they are also based in reality, and have their own place in history. The scam The Spanish Prisoner, which plays a part in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s instillation, dates back to the sixteenth century.
I don’t bring up this piece to say that the interaction between digital and physical space is dangerous, or ought to be avoided, or in any way destructive. Rather, that by situating conflicts that do arise as place conflicts, global conflicts, territorial conflicts, we can better understand its origin and impact. As Wood says: “Online scams actually rely on the remotedness of two parties in order to construct floating solidarities based on mutual benefit, pseudo-anonymity, and the imagination of the other.” Scams are networks, stories, and attacks. They are social, and with the social online, it’s best to keep place in mind.