Anatomy of an Urban Legend  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

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 Internet.

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 fears."


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 Networks.


"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 reliable sources."


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 1991."


"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 record straight.


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 wildfire."

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."

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