Anatomy of an Urban Legend
How the bogus notion that CNN’s footage of Palestinians celebrating the
September 11 attacks was actually a decade old took root on the
By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.
The night after the September 11 attacks, a sociology graduate student
from Brazil named Márcio A.V. Carvalho tapped out an e-mail and sent it
to an obscure Internet mailing list. The 488-word missive, which implied
that U.S. policy brought on the terrorist strike, led with a startling
accusation: CNN video of Palestinians celebrating the attack was really
Persian Gulf War-era file footage from a decade earlier.
Carvalho's note, riddled with spelling and syntax errors and
peppered with exclamation points and capitalizations for emphasis,
offered no proof, saying only that the grad student had heard the claim
from a professor, whom he did not name.
The story, as it turns out, was untrue. The video that aired on CNN
and other networks was shot by a Reuters TV crew in the hours after the
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet with no further
corroboration or elaboration from others, Carvalho's e-mail dispatch
raced around the world at a speed only the Internet can provide. Within
24 hours, the story had spread so widely that the St. Petersburg Times
began preparing a piece to debunk September 11 rumors such as this one.
And despite a speedy retraction from Carvalho, denials from CNN and
Reuters and no offers of proof from others, the story continued to
spiral outward to the point where even CNN officials believe it could go
down as a classic urban legend, as immortal as it is inaccurate.
The proliferation of rumors, gossip and urban legends in the
Internet age is well documented (see "The Real Computer Virus," April).
But how do such stories spread so quickly with such flimsy factual
basis? Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks, believes
"cyberterrorism" is the culprit. "This was a concerted attempt to
distort the news," Cramer says. Experts on Internet rumors, however, say
how stories such as the Palestinian celebration video enter the public
arena so quickly and with such force and credibility is a much subtler,
more complex and less organized process than Cramer's "cyberterrorism"
label might imply.
The chain of events that rocketed the CNN rumor around the world
started at 9:07 p.m. on September 12 when Carvalho hit the send button
and dispatched his note to the Social Theory Network, a British-based
electronic mailing list with 567 subscribers worldwide who share an
interest in "the relationship between psychological and sociological
explanations of the human condition."
In the message, Carvalho said one of his professors claimed to have
videotapes from 1991 "with the very same images" as the tape that aired
on CNN. He urged his social theory colleagues to try to find a copy of
the 1991 tapes and said he would do the same. While Carvalho stated as
fact "THOSE IMAGES WERE SHOT BACK IN 1991!!!," he never claimed to have
the tapes or any proof of their existence.
Less than 31 hours later, an apologetic Carvalho posted a second
note saying he had talked to the professor and she told him she was
convinced she had seen the images 10 years earlier, but that she did not
have any tapes. "I firmly believed that source, which proved to be
untrustworthy," Carvalho wrote in a third e-mail to the list.
The genesis of rumors often comes from misunderstandings as opposed
to organized attacks by so-called cyberterrorists, folklore experts say.
"Some might start as attempts to undermine corporations, [but] most
begin as innocent misunderstandings that escalate, snowball literally,
because people think they might be true," says Mike Coggeshall, a
cultural anthropologist and folklorist at Clemson University.
And once the rumor resonates with the public and is loose on the
Internet, it's nearly impossible to stop.
Carvalho's initial missive got little reaction from the Social
Theory Network. Two members sent short responses. But within hours, the
note had escaped the relative isolation of the Social Theory Network as
it began to be forwarded to friends and colleagues and posted on
Internet newsgroups around the world.
Within six hours, it was posted on Independent Media Center, a Web
site created by activists in the wake of the Seattle world trade
protests. The center describes its mission as "the creation of radical,
accurate and passionate tellings of the truth." That Web posting
triggered an avalanche of e-mails and newsgroup postings under headings
such as "Media Manipulation," "CNN Footage of Celebrating Palestinians
Images a Hoax," "Media Lies About Celebrating Palestinians," and "CNN's
Lies and Manipulations."
But a review of dozens of these early messages show that they were
little more than e-mailers adding their own opinions on top of
Carvalho's forwarded message. So why did so many people believe it to be
true? Scholars say the answer lies in the basic foundations for all
folklore, no matter the medium.
"The reason [urban legends] spread and the reason they are
semi-believed is that they capture something in the mood of the people,"
says Clemson's Coggeshall. "They capture the hopes and concerns and
David Emery, who runs the Urban Legends and Folklore Web site
(urbanlegends.about.com), says this was the case with the CNN video
rumor. "You have to look at who most of the people who are passing it
around are," he says. "And they are not people who have something
against CNN. They are people who trust CNN and are suddenly gripped by
the [notion] that maybe they can't."
The Internet, however, has changed the dynamics of folklore and the
spread of urban legends.
Emery says the medium of e-mail makes it easier for people to pass
along uncorroborated information. "It takes some effort and some sense
of responsibility to spread a rumor by word of mouth. You actually have
to call somebody or go next door," Emery says. People who would hesitate
to pass along such information verbally often don't think twice about
forwarding e-mail, he says.
Specialists in the world of folklore on the Internet also believe
that e-mail dispatches carry more weight than verbal communications.
"People are much more willing to grant credibility to anything that's
written down," says Emery. "There is just something inherently more
powerful in the written word than the spoken word."
Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor of journalism at
Columbia University who specializes in Internet communication, recalls
the child's game "telephone," in which a message gets passed from one
person to the next, often with changes that by the end make the final
iteration unrecognizable. "In e-mail, you see the exact thread in front
of you. All the facts are there. It seems like you can't misreport it,"
he says. "Something I hear can be misreported."
But Sreenivasan believes the power of e-mail rumors goes beyond the
simple fact that they are transmitted in text form. He says e-mail
recipients often weigh the credibility of the sender, who typically is
known to the recipient, as opposed to the original, usually unknown,
author. "Your friend has sent you...an e-mail," Sreenivasan says. "In a
way, I'm [thinking], 'I trust this guy, and he wouldn't just send me
crap. He's serious, he's likeable.' I have a [credibility] rating in my
mind for him, and he's acceptable."
And of course, there is the speed that comes with a mass delivery
system such as e-mail.
"If I have a hot, juicy story, how many people can I call?"
Sreenivasan asks. "It's really a problem to spread anything [verbally]."
But with the Internet, he says, "in seconds I can tell 20 people or 100
people, and they can tell 20 people."
The CNN story reached critical mass less than 24 hours after the
original dispatch — lightning speed even by today's digital standards.
Reporters from around the world began calling CNN to check out the
Internet rumor the day after Carvalho's original posting, says Nigel
Pritchard, vice president for public relations at CNN International
"It is extremely frustrating when you are trying to do the job of a
busy press office" and have to spend time knocking down a rumor "that is
quite preposterous and obviously not true," Pritchard says.
Jim Romenesko says e-mails on the CNN rumor were "coming in fast and
furious" to him at MediaNews, the popular Web site he runs in
conjunction with the Poynter Institute (poynter.org/medianews).
Romenesko says he received so many e-mails by the following day that he
felt obliged to post one of the inquiries in the hopes of getting a
response from CNN. Romenesko posted a brief inquiry from Miami Herald
humor columnist Dave Barry — who said he assumed "this charge is nonsense"
but was wondering if CNN had officially responded — and provided a link to
Carvalho's e-mail posted on the Independent Media Center.
The response came swiftly from Eason Jordan, the network's chief
news executive. Jordan posted an e-mail in which he explained the video
was shot in East Jerusalem by a Reuters crew on September 11 "and
included comments from a Palestinian praising Osama bin Laden, who was
not a gulf war player."
But to try to kill a rumor once it has reached a mass audience is a
near-impossible task. The proliferation of the misguided e-mail
continued, as did calls to CNN.
Even Emery, whose Web site is devoted to debunking rumors and
clarifying facts, says little can be done. "I have no illusions that we
stop the rumor or even slow rumors down very much, but you just try to
get another viewpoint out there and get some facts out there to balance
it so that people who do care [receive the] truth," Emery says. "It's
just a fact that a lot of people don't really care. If it's a good
[rumor], or meaningful to them emotionally, they simply pass it along."
The CNN rumor took a new turn on September 18, six days after the
Carvalho posting. An e-mail began circulating under the name of Russell
Grossman, head of internal communications for the BBC in London. A new
flurry of e-mails traversed the Internet with what was described as
confirmation from an "official source" — Grossman. The Islamic News and
Information Network sent to its mailing list the new e-mail, noting that
the network "is very careful to ensure that our reports come from
But even a cursory glance at the alleged smoking gun shows that it
was not written by Grossman, but rather was a truncated version of
Carvalho's original note with a single edit: Carvalho's "A teacher of
mine, here in Brazil, has videotapes recorded in 1991" was replaced with
"At the BBC here, we have these footages on videotapes recorded in
"The e-mail which is circulating wasn't sent by me or BBC Internal
Communication and was not issued by the BBC," Grossman wrote in an
e-mail to AJR. "It seems to be the work of someone seeking to make
mischief." Cyber-terrorists may not have started the rumor or even aided
significantly in its speedy promulgation around the world, but it seems
they had a hand in keeping the story afloat.
Two days later, CNN posted an official denial, along with a similar
statement from Reuters and a statement from Carvalho's school,
Universidad Estatala de Campinas-Brasil. The CNN statement urged readers
to copy it and "send it to anyone you know who may have the false
information." But Internet folklorists say such corrections of popular
rumors rarely get the same dissemination as the original story.
Indeed, both CNN and Romenesko continued to get calls and e-mail
queries about the rumor. News organizations such as the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Columbus Dispatch
ran stories days after the Carvalho retraction and CNN denials to answer
readers' continued inquiries about the rumor and to try to set the
In October, CNN's Pritchard told AJR he was receiving calls from
Greek reporters saying they had received a press release allegedly
confirming that the CNN video was from 1991. "I was told [there] was a
press release," he says, but "nobody was able to show me."
"It spreads very quickly," a frustrated Pritchard says. "Like a
Christopher Callahan is a senior editor of AJR, associate dean of the
Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and
author of "A Journalist's Guide to the Internet."