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I came across this in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, UK, 22/02/02...
Its a bit long, but very interesting.
Does seem to follow the pattern that bad news travels swiftly, even if its
wrong, while good news is reserved for the fluffy bit on the news broadcast...
New-Tech Society: The rumour machine that fills a need
By: FRANK FUREDI
FEBRUARY 22, 2002
In a six-page special, The THES looks at the impact of new technology on our
society and the degree to which we control it or it has come to control us.
The power of the internet in spreading rumour and myth was shown after
September 11. But Frank Furedi argues that net-legends take off only because
of people's need to spread them.
Last autumn, I received an email from a fellow academic informing me that
the media was up to its old tricks and fabricating news about the events of
September 11. My correspondent indicated that he had conclusive proof that
CNN's pictures showing Palestinians rejoicing in the streets over the
destruction of the World Trade Centre were faked. Apparently, CNN had used
old 1991 Gulf war footage in its broadcasts.
As someone who is highly sceptical of media representations of international
conflict, I am not normally shocked by revelations of news management. But
what really shocked me was when I discovered a day later that the conclusive
proof of CNN's misdeeds was actually an unsubstantiated rumour circulating
on the internet at the speed of light.
The CNN rumour is only one of a large number of September 11-related myths
circulating on the internet. Within a few days of September 11 many people
received emails that informed them that thousands of Jews who worked at the
World Trade Center were warned of the impending attack and therefore did not
show up for work on the fateful day. "How did 4,000 Jewish employees manage
to escape unhurt?" said one email message. Hints of this "Zionist
conspiracy" were transmitted on the pro-Palestinian Al Manar Television
network. Within days, this e-legend was widely treated as fact within Muslim
communities throughout the world.
Not all September 11 legends were about insidious conspiracies. By now most
people have heard how a "friend of a friend was warned by her Arab
boyfriend, begging her not to fly on commercial aeroplanes on September 11"...
One widely circulated rumour claimed that Dunkin' Donuts employees of Arab
descent were spotted cheering and applauding when they heard that the World
Trade Center buildings had collapsed.
Many post-September 11 myths had clear religious overtones. By September 12,
millions of internet users received emails that claimed that the Renaissance
French astrologer Nostradamus had predicted this terrible event. Another
legend indicated that a picture taken of one of the burning World Trade
Centre towers showed the face of the Devil gloating over the mayhem and
destruction. One persistent story making the rounds was about an unburned
Bible found in the wreckage of the Pentagon. According to this e-legend, a
rescue worker found an open Bible on an undisturbed stool. Neither the Bible
nor anything around it was burned.
Many rumours raised alarms about new threats of terrorist destruction. There
was a warning that sponges had been saturated with a deadly virus and were
being mailed in blue envelopes on a random basis. One worrying email rumour
that had a major impact in the United States warned that a large number of
lorries had been stolen by people of Arab descent, presumably to be used in
another terrorist attack.
Of course, the explosion of rumours in the aftermath of a catastrophe is not
an unexpected development. Urban myths and rumours often help communities
come to terms with a tragedy by endowing the terrible event with meaning.
Studies in the sociology of rumours indicate that an unexpected tragedy
about which very little is known often causes a temporary diminishing of
critical standards until more reliable information becomes available.
Rumours appear to provide an alternative source of news and often thrive
when people feel that they lack the information to make sense of their
What is particularly interesting about September 11-related legends is that
they are products of a new internet age. September 11 is the first major
global event where millions of people used this technology to find out what
was "really" happening and to pass on information. In the past, rumours
tended to be passed on by word of mouth. These days the transmission of
rumours is often technologically assisted. The internet makes it much easier
to spread tales. Email facilitates the passing on of uncorroborated truth
claims. It takes a lot of effort and responsibility to pass on rumour by
word of mouth. But with a press of a button hundreds of people can be
informed about the latest scare story. Most academics have received not a
few dodgy warnings of email viruses. Many of us have also inadvertently
contributed to spreading alarm by forwarding such warnings to everyone we
Not every internet rumour turns into a powerful legend. But when a
net-legend is constructed it tends to reach a massive global audience. In
1998, everybody on the internet knew that fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger
had made racist comments on the Oprah Winfrey show - except that he hadn't.
Nevertheless, television picked up the story, and it entered the public
Rumours on the internet impact on people's lives and sometimes affect their
behaviour. Health-related rumours have become so common on the internet that
the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to create a
special website to counter them.
The new breed of net-legends are very much the product of information
technology. But it would be simplistic to blame the sudden outburst of
net-legends on the internet alone. One of the main reasons why rumours
spread and are often widely believed is because of a growing sense of
distrust of conventional authority. As recent experience shows - the MMR
controversy, the debate about GM food - many people are continually looking
for the story behind the story. September 11 is no exception and urban
legends promise to fill in the missing gaps.
What is particularly interesting about September 11 net-legends is that they
tell so many different stories - often ones that are at variance with one
another. This diversity of narratives is due to the fact that people are
selective in their engagement with rumours. People select images and stories
that affirm their beliefs and make sense of their suspicions. That is why
many opponents of western intervention in Afghanistan are likely to treat
the rumour about CNN as fact. Some might even treat the rumour about Jewish
people staying away from the World Trade Center on September 11 as a welcome
confirmation of their pre-existing suspicions. Similarly, rumours about
Dunkin' Donuts' Arab employees celebrating the events of September 11 make
sense to those who are disposed to regard Muslim people with mistrust.
One important cultural pressure promoting rumours and urban legends is the
unprecedented demand to endow any form of misfortune with meaning. Society
today finds it difficult to accept the fact that a misfortune was due to bad
luck or an accident. To this day, thousands refuse to believe that Diana,
Princess of Wales, died in a car accident. Conspiracy theories suggesting
that MI6 or some other nefarious agent murdered her resonate with some
people. In the same way parents look for meaning, a story, that makes sense
of their child's affliction. Desperate mothers and fathers will seize upon
rumours about risky vaccinations to make sense of their predicament. Not
surprisingly millions of people have sought to discover the meaning of
September 11. The construction of so many of the rumours with a religious
dimension is one of the outcomes of this quest.
Some associate urban legends and rumours with uneducated "simple" people who
find it difficult to engage with our knowledge economy. Yet, it is worth
remembering that rumours can thrive on university campuses too. The myth
about CNN was traced back to a Brazilian university student. In their
recently published Whispers on the Color Line , authors Gary Fine and
Patricia Turner provide numerous examples of urban myths that flourish among
students on American campuses. Academics, who are quite rightly searching
for the story behind the story, need to be aware of their vulnerability to a
new occupational hazard - the net-myth. We could also do each other a favour
- by resisting the temptation to pass on the next unacknowledged virus
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. A revised
edition of his book The Culture of Fear will be published by Continuum next
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