Urban legends have always been a part of the American culture, flourishing as gossip in small town barbershops. However, with the advent of the Internet, the legendary rumors have taken the form of e-mail warnings that can cross the country, even the globe, in a matter of seconds. Varying from forwards promising money or free food from Outback, to viruses that can wipe out a hard drive, the e-mails have never been much of a concern for the government, or even normal Americans for that matter.
And then Sept. 11 happened.
Since that early autumn day the urban legend e-mails have twisted from harmless jokes into potentially dangerous warnings, such as staying out of malls for fear of future terrorist attacks, and asinine reports like Osama bin Laden being spotted in Utah.
Doctored pictures were also distributed, supposedly depicting shots from the observation deck of one of the Trade Center Towers a split second before the first plane crash, along with plenty of e-mails aimed at slandering politicians and public figures.
While the pictures have been relatively harmless, the warning e-mails have started to fulfill the purpose of those who sent them: further scare Americans by preying on their fragile and paranoid psyches. While, in most cases, the sources of these e-mails are unknown, it’s safe to say that some result from average citizens taking careful warnings and advice from the government and blowing it out of proportion. For example, the government’s bi-weekly statement to be on heightened alert likely led to the rumor that U.S. shopping malls would be targeted for terrorism on Halloween.
The controversial e-mails, while stirring up a great deal of paranoid citizens, have been relatively ignored by the government, although the media has done a noble job of debunking the more serious ones. For example, two weeks after the attacks, an e-mail rumor quickly spread, claiming that CNN used old footage to fake the shots of Palestinians dancing in the streets in celebration of the attacks. Reuters, who shot the controversial footage, issued the following statement: “Reuters rejects as utterly baseless an allegation being circulated by e-mail and the Internet claiming that it circulated 10-year-old videotape to illustrate Palestinians celebrating in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies in the United States.” CNN made a similar statement and was able to prove the accuracy of the tape.
This goes to show that a simple rumor can seriously threaten the reputation of those who are supposed to bring the public nothing but the truth.
For those issues that haven’t been addressed by the government or the media, we simply suggest that people just use common sense. Just because something is in print, doesn’t mean you have to believe it. Watch the news, read newspapers, talk to your professors – be educated before panicking. If you get an e-mail from someone you trust as a reliable source, investigate the rumor. A good Web site that investigates nearly every controversial e-mail rumor is www.snopes2.com.