BOSTON — Rumors have been a part of war since ancient times, when an unsubstantiated report of elephant-riding raiders or a particularly bad omen could send waves of refugees streaming across the countryside. It's therefore unsurprising that the war on terrorism has created the online equivalent of the gossip dished out by villagers huddling over the local well.
For example: a group purporting to be the United Nations has been bothering a friend of mine. Through an online petition, helpfully passed along by an acquaintance, the world's global cop has supposedly been assembling its most powerful weapon for world peace: a giant, randomly assembled list of personal email addresses.
"Today we are in a point in imbalance in the world and are moving toward what may be the beginning of the THIRD WORLD WAR," begins the email, which has a strangely un-UN habit of using all caps for emphasis.
"If you are against this possibility, the UN is gathering signatures to avoid this tragic world event. Please COPY this e-mail in a new message, sign at the end of the list, and send it on. If you receive this list with more than 500 names signed, please send a copy of the message to:
Even if you decide not to sign, please consider forwarding the petition on instead of eliminating it."
Ah, the UN. Who would have thought that this grand collection of nations would sink so low as to garner support through an online petition?
But a bit of research reveals that this isn't the UN's handiwork at all.
The "UN petition" was helpfully debunked by Snopes.com, a site dedicated to investigating and exposing urban legends and Internet rumors. It refers its readers to the United Nations Information Centre, where a statement gently sympathizes with the root motivation of the e-mail petition, while disavowing any official UN involvement whatsoever, and begging people to stop e-mailing them about it.
The supposed UN petition is merely the latest in a string of terrorism related hoaxes. In another incident, a minor national panic was created by a particularly convincing email forward. The email supposedly came from a woman with a vanished Afghan boyfriend who had warned her of terror strikes on Halloween. Investigated by the FBI, it turned out to be completely unsubstantiated - like the vast majority of fascinating "friend of a friend" type email forwards and petitions that buzz around the Internet in troubled times.
As the hype mounts, and more and more of us find ourselves on the receiving end of war-related rumors and hype, it's likely most of us will go through an evolution of attitude eerily similar to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous stages of dying.
Step 1: Acceptance
The recipient is deeply moved by the online effort to [insert one] prevent World War III/ spread the true prophecies of Nostradamus / win a free trip to Disneyland, and participates by passing the email along to 40 or 50 close friends and relatives.
Step 2: Anger
Having been the victim of a near-infinite number of previous dubious communiques, the recipient lashes out at the most recent e-mail's point of origin. "How can you be so incredibly foolish as to fall for a scam such is this?" rages the recipient, who, at one point or another, was probably shocked to learn that the initials "JS" on every US dime actually stand for "Josef Stalin."
Step 3: Irony
"Thanks for passing along the fascinating e-mail about Nostradamus," begins a typical reply. "Who knew that his wise words could be so relevant in this modern day and age? I'm sure you've done your research to ensure he actually wrote all the things this e-mail claims he did, and that you've accepted the disturbing and ridiculous spiritual implications of a random 14th century Frenchman being able accurately predict the future.
I look forward to many more unsolicited nuisance emails from you and your ilk."
Step 4: Acceptance (realistic)
The recipient reads the email, sighs poignantly, and deletes it before moving on with life.
We may not all make it to the fourth and final step before the crisis subsides, and with it, the tidal wave of ridiculous digital misinformation. But those of us who have evolved the perfect, Zen-like coping mechanism for handling e-mail forwards harmonious and complete indifference will lead happier lives, and help keep our Internet just a little bit cleaner. It's a win-win.