PITTSBURGH — When 39 members of a clannish computer-programming firm committed suicide earlier this week, they did so apparently because they thought they would rendezvous with a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Where could they get such an idea? The Internet.
For months now, conspiracy theories about the comet have been bouncing about cyberspace. The comet has been linked to everything from an alien invasion to a Vatican plot. Although comet sightings have spawned supernatural predictions for centuries, the Internet is disseminating them more quickly and more globally than ever before.
"Falsity and rumor travel around the world in a cyber-second," says Edwin Diamond, a journalism professor at New York University and author of "White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America."
There is no evidence as yet that the employees of Higher Source, who committed suicide, got ideas about the comet from the Internet. The firm designed sites for the Internet's World Wide Web. Its members lived together in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., leading some observers to call the group a cult.
If that's true, it would not be unusual, says Marcia Rudin, director of the cult-education program of the American Family Foundation, a secular, nonprofit research center in Bonita Springs, Fla. Many cults use the Internet to recruit members and get their message out.
But, she adds, "cults don't just appeal to people on a spiritual level." Many offer to train members in computer-related jobs and send them out to make money for the group.
Thus, the Internet poses a twofold challenge to a society based on the free-flow of information, analysts say. It spreads rumors and lies more rapidly and more globally than any technology before it, and it offers a tool for the unscrupulous to lure people into cult-like beliefs.
One rumor-tracking Web site, "60 Greatest Conspiracy Theories of All Time" (http://www.webcom.com/~conspire), says the rumor about Hale-Bopp got started in November when an amateur astronomer said on a radio show that he had a picture showing another object flying beside the comet.
SOON speculation on the Internet got so bad that the astronomers who discovered the comet publicly debunked the idea of a second object. Many astronomers say the object is a bright star and the rings shown on some photos are a diffusion of light common to comets. Several Internet sites debunking the conspiracy theories popped up, although the battle still rages.
The reach of the Internet is bumping up pressure on traditional media to do their truth-telling job, Dr. Diamond says. "If there are going to be these fonts of falsity - these idiots with e-mail - it's all the more reason for critics and writers ... to speak out. It's the price of a free society, but the price is going up with the Internet."