America Responds to Hoaxes
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Three nights after the World Trade Center attacks, countless Americans across the country stood in the darkness, holding candles. "NASA has asked that everyone step out on their lawns tonight and light a candle," an email had informed them. "They will be positioning a satellite to take a picture of the U.S. and posting it on the news tomorrow morning." Though the email was a hoax, people across the country stood in the darkness with lit candles, convinced they were part of something larger. And of course, they were. America's response to the overwhelming flood of information -- and misinformation -- which followed in the wake of September 11.
"I think that we're working through some tremendous changes in our country," remembers Steve Knagg. "A lot of the information that we first received about the bombings, things the next day, two days later, you'd find out were completely wrong." But the problem may not be too little information, but too much. "I don't think it's intentional by the media to mislead anyone. I just think that with this much news breaking this quickly it must be exceedingly difficult to get it right the first time every time."
Knagg has some experience at his job as Communications Director for the Garland Independent school district in a suburb of Texas. A fifth-grade student there had told their teacher -- the day before the attacks -- that World War III would be started in the United States on Sept. 11. "That was the intial report we got," Knagg remembers. It illustrates how the attacks magnified the significance of the otherwise trivial -- including even the words of 11-year-olds. The teacher hadn't thought much of it at the time. ("That was a different world on the 10th," remembers Knagg.) But after the attacks, confronted with remarks that seemed strangely prophetic, the school contacted the FBI. "When we hear something like that, we want it investigated," Knagg explains. "We want to know. The world's just that weird now." And there was one more twist to the story. "The boy was living in an apartment complex in our district that was scheduled for renovation, so EVERYBODY there had to move out a week after the bombing in New York and find a different place to live. So the story went out that now the kid has disappeared!"
"That's not what happened; his parents just moved to some other district in the Dallas area."
But after further investigation, the events seemed less dramatic. "The teacher was not completely convinced she remembered the boy saying that World War III would start TOMORROW," says Knagg, "which kind of changes the newsworthiness of the story!" Last week the FBI's investigators concluded there was nothing there, the Houston Chronicle reported. And Knagg points out the ultimate irony. Since news accounts of the "prophecy" didn't run in the Dallas newspaper -- just a few radio reports, and one on TV -- "I'm still not sure today if the student and the parents are even aware that this story has been written!"
Some misinformation can be even more disturbing. The New York Times reported that in the wake of the attacks hundreds of New Yorkers received an email claiming (falsely) that the city's water might be poisoned. Days later the Times reported on false bomb threats and other hoaxes that had required the Sears Tower be evacauted. The L.A. Times uncovered even more disturbing rumors in Pakistan. The paper estimates millions in the badly-educated and often illiterate population of Pakistan subscribe to a variety of counter-theories about the World Trade Center attacks -- that the buildings were struck by empty airplanes flown by remote control. That 4,000 Jews were forewarned, and avoided the building that day. Some theorists even pointed the finger at Al Gore.
But when it comes to run-of-the-mill urban legends, the Internet has been involved in their promulgating and their debunking. After the attacks emails circulated with claims that Nostradomus himself had prophesied the event as the beginning of World War III. ("In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb.") But a hoax-debunking Web site was already on the case, noting that the first problem with the prophesy was it wasn't written by Nostradomus. Instead, a few years ago, a Canadian student penned it to illustrate how vague Nostradomus's own predictions were.
"If you make enough prophecies and are intelligent enough to word them in such a way that they are abstract, you become instant future see-er person," he'd written sarcastically. The remainder of his essay mocked the 16th-century mystic. "I was watching a 1970s movie on Nostradamus and it predicted that the Third World War began in 1994 ... I am holding my breath. Oh no!"
But then the current of information took a strange turn. Though the student's Web page was intended to debunk Nostradomus, instead his phoney prediction was circulated around the Internet -- along with additional bogus details like "On the 11th day of the 9 month, two metal birds will crash into two tall statues in the new city -- and the world will end soon after." The address for his Web site was included with the email -- and eventually, his essay had to be relocated. The email hoax had drawn so many people to his Web page that "the increased load on this server was seriously degrading the University's Internet access!"
The hoax-debunkers at Snopes.com eventually agreed to host the student's essay -- as part of their round-up of the recent urban legends. The site's co-founder, Barbara Mikkelson, sees a pattern to the rumors that are floating around; they give voice to an almost emotional need. "We're seeing stories that have to do with our need to try to impose a sense of order. That's why we're seeing stories about prophecies and foreknowlege..." True or not, people want to believe them. "We're looking for some miracles as well, the idea that maybe there is a divine hand at work in some of it, which is why we're going to cling to some stories like the unburned bible in the Pentagon."
USA Today reported that while searching the Pentagon wreckage, an army sergeant found a stool still standing amid the rubble supporting a book fellow searchers said was a Bible. "It was not burned. Nor was anything around it or on the two floors above it." Mikkelson spoke to a friend who works at the Pentagon who photographed the book, and confirmed with other sources that the book was a dictionary.
Photographs aren't always accurate either, but many couldn't resist forwarding the riveting image of an ordinary-looking tourist on an observation deck high above the city -- just as an airplane in the background flew directly toward the building below him. "It apparently captures the last fraction of a second of this man's life," an essay on Snopes.com notes, "and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us ... Though the picture wasn't real, the emotions it stirred up were. It is because of these emotions the photo has sped from inbox to inbox with the speed that it has. " It turns out there's a number of reasons the photograph isn't an accurate depiction. The plane is approaching the towers from the wrong direction, and, in fact, it's the wrong type of airplane.
Soon the discovery of the photograph's inauthenticity led to laughter. People began creating their own fake photo photographs of the unlucky tourist. But this time, he was fleeing from the sinking Titanic. In one photo he even appeared in Tokyo just as it suffered another attack from Godzilla. Each photo reinforced the mesage of just how easily a photo can be fabricated -- and gave viewers a chance to laugh at the credulity in all of us. Friday that delight was consecrated into permanent web pages for the cult figure, and in the first five days over 10,000 people accessed TouristofDeath.com. "Who is this man?" its Web master joked. "And why does he cause so much trouble wherever he appears?"
Crediting Internet culture sites like Off-Topic.net and Fark.com, the Web master tries to explain the craze. "The shock-value of the first image inspired the original copycats ... which were very good and VERY humourous. As a result ... everyone and their uncle started pumping the things out, having a snowball effect." (Another web site -- TheTouristGuy.com -- appears to have racked up nearly 60,000 visits in its first week.)
There have been other attempts to parody misinformation. "The President has asked that we unite for a common cause," begins one email archived at Snopes.com. "Since the hardline Islamic people cannot stand nudity, and consider it a sin to see a naked woman that is not their wife, tonight at 7:00 all women should run out of their house naked to help weed out the terrorists.
"The United States appreciates your efforts."
Snopes.com's Mikkelson urges skepticism of stories that seem unusually compelling -- but at the same time, some of them turn out to be true. Passengers on a United Airlines flight really did receive a stirring speech from the pilot instructing them on how to stand up to terrorists. "If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together. Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them..."
"It perfectly fit exactly what people needed to feel right now," says Mikkelson. "We've been feeling helpless in the face of terrorism, but here's the answer. If we all stand up to it together, we can handle this. We can make sense of this. We can reduce it back to something that can be dealt with..."
Sharing the stories -- online and offline -- gives people a way to come together and sort out their emotions, says Mikkelson, whether the stories themselves are true or false. "It's a way of performing a reality check with those around us..." says Mikkelson. "It's a way of saying this affected me this way; did you feel that too?"
And the stories come from all walks of life. The morning of the attacks movie star Jackie Chan really was scheduled to begin filming a movie at the World Trade Center, according to Singapore's Straits Times. Chan told the paper he was playing a window washer at the Trade Center who fights terrorists bent on blowing up the Statue of Liberty. "As I had to be at the top of one of the towers for one of the scenes, I would probably have died if the shooting went ahead as planned!"
The strange coincidence was picked up by other media outlets -- all citing the same Singapore newspaper account. But much of the story's impact depends on when the schedule change was made for Chan's movie "Nosebleed" -- a crucial fact omitted from the original news item. "The fact of the matter is that 'Nosebleed' was not going to be made for a long time, if ever," one skeptical poster argued in an Internet newsgroup called alt.movies.jackie-chan, "so there's no way there's any truth to this rumor."
There seems to be an increased willingness to acccept morbid stories. This weekend a prankster recycled a fake page mimicking CNN's Web site and reporting that Britney Spears had died. Observers reported the page linked to a mail system at the real CNN.com, where a software glitch ultimately inserted the hoax page onto CNN's list of its own most popular stories.
But the answer to misinformation seems to be more information. Chan recounts his memory of Sept. 11 on his personal Web site. "We crowded around the small TV and watched in horror. Crew members cried at the sight of all those innocent lives destroyed in minutes, myself included. I don't remember what I did for the rest of the day..."
"The real heroes in our communities emerged during this time of crisis. The firemen, policemen and rescue workers sacrificed and risked their lives, helping and saving those in need."
The Internet seems to be serving another function now, granting a forum for emotions. Actor Larry Bagbay, a recurring character on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is distributing a gentle song called "America Stands Tall" on his Web page. ("The dream lives on, Though our heavy hearts are torn. Though buildings fall. America Stands Tall.") The heavy metal band Jackyl is distributing their own song, threatening angry retaliation on the attack's perpetrators. Even the bottom of the humor page with photos of "the tourist guy" is decorated with images of "support freedom" ribbons that lead to a Web site for real relief-agency donations.
But it's important to remember that the outpouring of good will is also creating tempting targets for con artists. "Within hours of the towers coming down, there were scams afoot on the Internet," says Snopes.com's Mikkelson. "A number of them were straightforward -- 'Hi! I'm collecting money for the widows of the firemen. Send ME your money, and I'll make sure they get it!'" Another claimed to be from a band of Estonian hackers who will ferret out the location of Osama bin Laden as soon as $160,000 is wired into their bank account.
"In the immediate wake of the tragedy, everybody felt the overpowering impulse to do something -- and it was that that was being played upon."
David Cassel is a freelance writer living in Oakland. He is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.