Rumour Machine

From: Steve Drew (
Date: Fri Feb 22 2002 - 21:35:49 GMT

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    Hi everyone.

    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
    Section: RESEARCH
    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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