New-Tech Society: The rumour machine that fills a need

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 circumstances.

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 know.

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 imagination.

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 alert.

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 month.

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