Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Karim Pirbay is an Email Scammer


If you haven't heard, the Harvard Class of 2016 elected Program Marshals for commencement (graduation) exercises this week. Basically, it's a popularity contest to determine who gets to sit on stage with Natalie Portman or John Oliver or whoever it is this year. At some point, I guess we'll hear the results.

Of course, in the post-Clark–Mayopoulos era, exactly zero of the campaigns were serious. I think the most serious policy proposal that made it through my spam filter was, verbatim, "P.S. Jon Stewart/John Oliver for Class Day??". But, of course, posters, facebook groups, and an infuriating flood of mass emails have made an appearance nonetheless. One in particular stands out, because I think it represents a lapse in judgment so egregious, the party in question should be lowered in public status.

Karim Pirbay sent two mass emails to the senior class. The first included this gem:

If there is any way I can bribe you for a vote, I’d be happy to work something out… I recently sent some money to the Prince of Nigeria and should be receiving $10 million very soon. Should this not suffice, maybe the few screenshots I preciously saved these past three years cataloguing slightly embarrassing, potentially incriminating Snapchats will compel you to cast your vote this coming Tuesday.

Which was un-funny, and definitely lost my vote, but not the reason that we're talking now. The second was worse:

An email from "Drew Faust", encouraging Harvard seniors to vote, endorsing Karim Pirbay.

That's an email, sent from "Drew Faust" (address: kpirbay@college.harvard.edu), on letterhead that says "Harvard Office of the President", and formatted substantially similarly to the typical email sent by, well, Drew Faust:

An email from Drew Faust, announcing the sale of the naming rights to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Now, I've previously written in support of imitative parody on campus, but it should be abundantly clear that this is not that. Satire is comedy with a point, but Karim Pirbay's only point is that you should vote for him because he's hilarious, and also Drew Faust sends emails with memorable characteristics. To be clear, his speech should be free...along with the speech of everyone else willing to call him obnoxious because of it.

The thing which should not be free (either morally or legally) is his right to misrepresent his identity while sending email spam. I am not a lawyer, but I do understand that the federal statute against wire fraud is hilariously broad, and likely covers misrepresenting yourself as the Office of the President of Harvard in order to gain advantage in a student election. It's fraud for a laughably small benefit, but it's fraud, and we should call it such.


Rude actions should have consequences sometimes. If they don't, they proliferate. And though it's very, very easy to ignore spammy emails, scope neglect[?] hides the fact that they're pretty rude.

Imagine that half the senior class, on receiving Pirbay's email spent five seconds reading it, realizing it was spam, and throwing it away -- ignoring the possibility that any of them were nudged to vote for him. 800 people times 5 seconds is more than an hour of time wasted. If someone wasted an hour of my time on a joke related to his election campaign, I'd be pretty angry. I'd probably want to write a blog post pointing out that he was unfit to be put in charge of senior class activities, if he was so rude to strangers, whether intentionally or not.

Some people just don't double-check whether they're being considerate before they send out a mass email, and that's fine; it doesn't make them morally bad people. But it does make them the last sort of person I want to elect to organize class-wide events via mass email. But, again, that's not the whole story behind this blog post, because I don't have posts planned for each of the couple-dozen candidates who have given me spam in the past week.

A lot of the story is about the fraud. Leaving aside the legal, there's something on the ethical level that makes it just incredibly irksome to me. It's harder to put numbers on it, the way we might with the time-wasting, but something about being lied to makes me more angry than the five seconds of my time wasted. Multiply that by 800, and you get...what? I don't even know, but it's a lot of momentary flashes of anger. A lot of being-lied-to. Definitely the sort of thing that people should do less of, even if they think it's hilarious and electorally advantageous, and probably the sort of thing that we should speak out against, so that people don't make a habit of it.

Also, voting has closed, so I'm not worried about driving people to vote for him, a la Streisand Effect[?].


Honorable mention for "worst decision made in the Program Marshal election" goes to Margarita Kostova, for sending her spam email to a 500-person-long cc'd (rather than bcc'd) list of emails. For context, this was the exact mistake that the Senior Class Committee made last year, which led to a hundreds-of-messages-long campus-wide thread of trolling and jokes.