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Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 07:24 GMT
America's online rumour mill
US helicopter crewmen prepare for night mission from the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea
The Halloween masquerade has spread to the internet
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson

They mean well really, those friends and relatives on the internet and at the pub who tell you the tale that they are convinced will save you from the next terrorist attack but, most of time, they are plain wrong.

Chain e-mail has joined the proud tradition of water cooler whispers and canteen chatter in spreading urban myths.


Nostradamus displaced Britney Spears from her coveted position in the top ten searches on the internet as people hungry for information about this cryptic prediction scoured the web for information

It is easy to forward that e-mail with the warning to stay out of shopping malls on the Halloween holiday that came from the friend of a friend who got the chilling message from her sister's girlfriend who was dating an Afghan who mysteriously disappeared on 11 September.

But fortunately, just as the internet has proven a good medium for spreading such messages, it can also help users separate fact from fiction. And the FBI might appreciate if you check the net first before calling them.

Amateur truth sleuths

Barbara and David Mikkelson launched their website about urban myths six years ago.

"It was as much out of self-defence as anything because people kept sending us these e-mails," she said. And Snopes.com was born.

She said the internet rumour mill was strangely silent immediately after the 11 September attacks. People simply paused and dealt with the fallout.

But before the day was out on the 11th, news spread on the internet that the French mystic Nostradamus had predicted the attacks, she said.

Nostradamus displaced Britney Spears from her coveted position in the top ten searches on the internet as people hungry for information about this cryptic prediction scoured the web for information.

Mall-o-ween

But one of the most popular stories circulating at the moment deals with a woman who received a warning from her Afghan boyfriend.

The couple were supposed to go out on 6 September, but he failed to keep the date.

She went to his home and found it completely emptied. The day before the attacks, she received a letter from him explaining why he had left.

The e-mail goes on to warn: "The part worth mentioning is that he BEGGED her not to get on any commercial airlines on 9/11 and to not to go any malls on Halloween."


While some urban myths are harmless, some of the rumours that have sprung up in the wake of the attacks have caused serious damage

Mrs Mikkelson said they actually were able to find the woman who sent the original e-mail on 5 October.

"Its author, a young lady whose signature block is included in a number of the forwards, has told us she got this story from a friend, who in turn heard it from the warned girl," Mrs Mikkelson said.

She called the FBI three or four days after the e-mail began circulating. "They were already bone-tired of it," she said.

The e-mail had spread across the internet like wildfire.

"Without exaggerating, I would say it was spread to millions of people," she said.

"What I see on my site is the merest fraction of total traffic."

The internet has made it easy to quickly spread such messages to millions of people, and the message often passes from person to person unchanged because people find it simple to forward it unedited and are less willing to change messages in print or in pixels, she said.

Malicious rumours

But she added that face-to-face communication still accounts for a number of rumours, and her site chronicles those as well.

And while some urban myths are harmless, albeit alarming, some of the rumours that have sprung up in the wake of the attacks have caused serious damage.

She said one such rumour repeated over and over is that a person walked into a business owned by an Arab-American or with an Arab-American employee to find them celebrating on the day of the attacks.

"These rumours have hit a number of larger companies, but also little mom-and-pop shops," she said. And the small companies may not be able to weather the downturn in their business caused by the rumours.

"There are reports that say some of them lost 50% of their business," she said.

See also:

31 Oct 01 | Americas
US steps up nuclear security
31 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax: Charting the US cases
29 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Mail sterilisation: The options
30 Oct 01 | Americas
Sitting ducks on NY underground?
31 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax kills fourth American
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