From survival tales to attack predictions, rumors fly

The cyberage version of spinning yarns reflects a need to create order in a chaotic world.

NEW YORK

In this new world of anxiety and uncertainty, the age-old practice of spinning yarns has kicked into high gear.

From tales of miraculous Sept. 11 survivors, to warnings about the terrorist's next target, to advice on how to cope with anthrax in the mail, stories race across the country in seconds with the click of a computer's forward button.

But in this time of instantaneous, global communication, many of these stories can be detrimental. They can spread unfounded fear, play to people's worst prejudices, and send law enforcement on unnecessary wild-goose chases.

Still, the outpouring of tall tales and rumors is in one sense the cyberage version of the ancient human inclination that brought us Greek mythology and Grimms' fairy tales. It's the need to create order and dispel fear in a chaotic world.

"One of the ways people deal with their fear and lack of sense of control is through telling stories, believing them," says Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. It gives "some way to catalog their fear and share it."

But just as fast as these stories spread, so too are many debunked. Indeed, the Web has proved to be self-correcting: Almost as soon as a story starts circulating, people begin discussing it in chat rooms, and fact-checkers move in. At least two websites are dedicated to culling truth from fiction, and they've been working overtime since Sept. 11.

Different phases

David Emery runs the "Urban Legends and Folklore" Web page at About.com. He says the rumors and stories have come in phases since Sept. 11. In the first week, there were coping and miracle stories. People tried to explain the tragedy through conspiracy or mystical theories, such as the one that Nostradamus predicted it. (He did not.)

At the same time, stories provided hope, like the one about a man who rode the rubble down 80 floors and survived with only a broken leg. It turned out to be false, but Mr. Emery says, at that time, "we needed that story."

Then came the attack on Afghanistan and the anthrax infections. That raised the level of fear and started another phase: rumors about what terrorists would do next.

One such story that circulated widely has to do with a woman with an Afghan boyfriend. He supposedly disappeared, and then sent her a letter warning her not to fly on Sept. 11 or go to a mall on Halloween. The e-mail said the FBI was alerted and is investigating.

The story exemplifies some of the traits the rumors have in common: It was plausible, supposedly passed on by a reliable friend of a friend, and has morphed into several versions.

But very week it appeared, the FBI says it had never received such a letter or report. Nonetheless, variations of the story continue to appear in people's in boxes.

No one knows where it originated, but other stories have a clear lineage and are even tied to official sources or news stories. One reassuring e-mail currently circulating offers a way to deal with anthrax-laced mail. The e-mail says that a close friend's mother-in-law who is from the former Soviet Union - where bioterrorism was a threat - says steam-ironing suspect mail will kill any dangerous spores.

A few days before the e-mail popped up Emery's in box, a bioterrorism expert from Russia testified on Capitol Hill, giving similar advice.

Heat and steam can kill spores, but other experts say it's unclear how much is needed. And the advice runs directly counter to what both the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend for suspicious letters, which is not to touch them and to call authorities immediately.

Still, the iron advice is spreading, in part because it plays into an innate distrust of institutions - whether the government or the media - and offers a way to protect oneself.

"Maybe ironing the mail might do some good, who knows, but it shows people are trying to respond to the uncertainty about the mail," says Alan Dundes, a folklorist and professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

The previous two rumors are based in fear. Gary Alan Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, says

there are also rumors that for some are wish fulfillment - such as the one that has Osama bin Laden terminally ill and Sept. 11 as his last desperate act. And there are wedge-driving rumors, the ones based in prejudice, such as the untrue story of Arab Americans celebrating at a Dunkin Donuts in New Jersey upon hearing of the New York attacks.

Still, because so many of these stories are based in what Professor Fine calls "the politics of plausibility," many people do respond to them. Even the government is not immune.

Second wave of attacks?

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attack, a story circulated widely that a woman in a Boston bar overheard some Arab men talking about a second wave of attacks planned for Sept. 22. The FBI investigated, but a spokesman later said the threat was unfounded.

"The advice that I would give people is that if things seem to make too much sense, be a little bit suspicious and ask: 'Where did I get this? How did this person know this?' " says Fine. "And don't change your lifestyle - ironing all of your mail may be a little bit excessive right now."

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