Internet Rumors: Harmless Gossip or Dangerous Lies?

October 9, 2008 (VistaNews) In last week's editorial, I rambled on a bit about how the economy can affect our technology. This week, I want to turn the tables and talk about how the technology can affect the economy and other aspects of our lives. We saw an example of that last Friday (October 3), when a CNN "citizen journalism" web site published an item reporting that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital following a heart attack.

Apple's stock, which had already dropped along with many others, immediately took another plunge, going to under $100 per share for the first time since early 2007. Sure, the stock came back after Apple spokespersons denied the story, but it shows how information - or misinformation - posted on the Internet can have an impact. At this point, no one seems to know whether the post was an honest mistake, a practical joke, or an attempt to manipulate the markets, but the SEC is investigating.

It's obvious, though, how a person could have benefited by buying the stock when it tanked and then waiting for it to go up again when the truth was revealed. And Apple was particularly vulnerable because of the extent to which the company's identity is associated with Jobs and the fact that there have been other rumors swirling around about his health in the wake of his very thin appearance the last few times he's appeared in public.

Of course, another obvious area in which Internet rumors run rampant is the political arena, especially during this divisive campaign season. Mangling of the truth occurs on both sides of the aisle and that's certainly nothing new; the election of 1828 that pitted Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams is well known as one of the dirtiest ever. Jackson was accused by his opponents of being a gambler, adulterer, bigamist and even a murderer, and Jackson blamed them for the death of his wife just a few weeks before his inauguration.

But as nasty as some of those early political races were, it took time for accusations and counter-accusations to make their ways through the populace. Today dissemination of whatever "alternative truths" one comes up with is instantaneous, thanks to the global network. Today, anyone can be a "journalist," with absolutely no training in the basics of journalism (such as the difference between reporting and editorializing). Perhaps the most dangerous aspect is that the nature of Internet communications allows you to post anonymously or even pretend to be someone else, so there's no accountability for what you say.

In January of this year, a Pew Research study showed that the Internet has a growing influence on political opinions, especially among young people. According to that data, TV news and newspapers still provide more of the information that the public as a whole gets about the campaigns, but the Internet is growing in influence with each presidential election, from 9% of the population regularly getting info that way in 2000 to 24% in 2008. That's a big jump. And 42% of those under 30 regularly get campaign information from the 'Net.

Some believe the Internet - along with 24 hour cable news networks and the current sensationalist approach to journalism in all forums - is at least partially to blame for the recent stock market plunges. As demonstrated by the Apple example, bad news that travels fast can be the catalyst for a sell-off of individual stocks, and the constant barrage of gloom and doom from supposed financial experts undoubtedly has something to do with many folks deciding to get out of the stock market altogether.

Of course, both good news and bad can influence the stock market, and as far back as the 1990s, regulators were expressing concern about the influence of Internet communications (at that time, electronic bulletin boards) on investment decisions.

Then there are all the hoaxes and "urban legends" that circulate via the 'Net. Most of these spread as forwarded email. Who among us hasn't, at one time or another, received a message from a friend or relative passing on some story or another that doesn't sound quite credible? One of the most famous instances of this was a much-forwarded account of how a woman asked for a cookie recipe at Neiman Marcus and was told it cost "two fifty," then later found her credit card had been charged for two hundred and fifty dollars when she expected the charge to be two dollars and fifty cents. The email contains a cookie recipe that is supposedly the costly one from Neiman Marcus. It's a good recipe but it's not one used at Neiman Marcus and they don't sell cookie recipes.

The funny thing is that this urban legend has reportedly been around since the 1940s, long before the Internet. Has the story hurt Neiman Marcus's business? Probably not; the people who typically shop at Neiman's most likely wouldn't raise an eyebrow at the thought of paying $250 for a cookie recipe there. But some of the hoax messages have the potential to be much more harmful.

One example is the story that flew around the Internet a few years ago that, like many of the email legends, relied on fear of criminal gangs. It has long been a custom in the U.S. for drivers to warn other drivers whose headlights were off by flashing their own lights. As early as 1993, email was going around warning that this was a common gang initiation rite, whereby new would-be gang members would drive around with their lights off and shoot at any vehicle that flashed its lights at him:

This legend and others like it can cause harm in a number of ways. First, they induce panic in the population. They can also lead people not to engage in the customary method of warning a driver who has inadvertently left his or her lights off, and that could result in the unlit vehicle going unseen and being hit by another car.

Urban legends and other hoaxes have become so commonplace on the Internet that several web sites have sprung up for the sole purpose of debunking (or confirming) the story du jour. One of the most popular of these is Snopes. Another is UrbanLegendsOnline. Yet another is David Emory's Urban Legends Blog on About.com.

These sites are not themselves above controversy. Some urban legends and hoaxes can be easily and definitively proven true or false. Others are more subjective, and those who run the web sites, especially Snopes, are believed by many to interject their own political and personal biases into their assessments.

Where, then, do you find the truth? It may be "out there," but it's not always easy to discern. Rumors based on lies and half truths have been with us since humans learned to speak, but our modern technology makes it much easier to spread them, and in some cases, more difficult to quash them. What do you think? Is this just an inevitable by-product of mass communications and human nature, and thus not something we should worry about? Or are you disturbed by the idea that rumors can be so easily and quickly spread through the electronic media? Do you worry that the 'Net can be used to skew public perception and political opinion? Was it any better in the days when we got most of our information from "professional" journalists? Should there be laws against forwarding emails containing untrue statements? Should we all be required to authenticate our identities on the email we send so we can be held accountable? or is that a slippery slope that could destroy the concept of freedom of speech?

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