Columbus Dispatch

E-mail full of post-Sept. 11 inanities

by Howard Fienberg
October 24, 2001

My e-mail has told me the following since Sept. 11: Terrorists are planning attacks at shopping malls on Halloween. In the 16th-century, French astrologer Nostradamus predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. A deadly virus is being spread through the mail in blue envelopes.

One e-mail explains how a friend of a friend who had been dating an Afghan received a letter from him after he disappeared on Sept. 6. He warned her not to fly on Sept. 11 and not to go to any malls on Oct. 31. Exactly who the original person was who sent this is lost in the electronic ether. Even were I to meet the person, this e-mail would still qualify as a pretty dubious rumor.

I don't think anyone can predict the future, so I can't say there definitely won't be any incidents at malls on Halloween, but this e-mail provides no grounds for thinking otherwise. So what about Nostradamus? I've received many e-mails showing how he predicted the attacks in a 1654 quatrain about "two brothers torn apart by chaos,'' which would precipitate World War III.

It just happens that the date given for the quatrains is 88 years after Nostradamus died. In fact, a quick check of urban legend Web sites such as snopes.com reveals the quatrains were invented in 1997 by Neil Marshall, a Canadian university student, who was demonstrating how nearly any verse could be loosely interpreted to predict any event. Another e-mail, describing Nostradamus' prediction of "two steel birds'' falling from the sky onto "the Metropolis,'' sounds convincing.

However, steel was not much used until a couple centuries after his death and the verses are not in the regular quatrain format.

So, the Nostradamus predictions are fishy. But anyone following the news lately could not dismiss the e-mail about a deadly virus spreading through the regular mail. This virus arrives in a large blue envelope and reads on the front in bold black letters, "A gift for you from the Klingerman Foundation.'' Inside is a small sponge sealed in plastic carrying the unknown strain of virus. According to the e-mail, seven out of the 23 people who came in contact with the "Klingerman'' virus died after being hospitalized with dysentery. The e-mail also indicates that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are trying to find the person responsible.

Anthrax is being spread by mail. Is the Klingerman virus part of another bioterror plot?

Last year, The Palm Beach Post reported on a Florida woman who received a pale blue envelope, supposedly including a cash prize, with the words "Restricted access'' stamped across it.

Luckily, she had heard about the Klingerman virus. After wrapping the letter in a plastic grocery bag, she called 911, bringing the bomb squad, sheriff's deputies, a hazardous-materials team and a postal inspector to her home to examine the envelope. But there was no sponge or virus, just a bunch of magazine ads. After taking dozens of panicked phone calls, the CDC specifically announced that there is no Klingerman Foundation or virus. Just a bunch of e-mails they would prefer we deleted.

With the rapidly changing stories on the TV news, it can appear that your computer screen is as authoritative as CNN. Indeed, since these e-mail rumors arrive as text, they feel more reliable than mere word-of-mouth rumors. If it is written down, it must be true.

Unlike regular news reports, these messages usually encourage action, whether it be to forward the e-mail to "everyone you care about'' or to take protective action. Such encouragement, especially after Sept. 11, feeds people's need to do something rather than nothing.

So, the e-mails are forwarded. On the Internet, the freshest piece of misleading information rapidly disseminates to thousands upon thousands, creating a flood of misplaced concern. The e-mail alerts above may have been hoaxes intended for a few laughs or half-overheard whispers mistaken for fact. Unfortunately, pranks and rumors have harmful effects when, mistaken for truth, they end up taking precedence over issues of real importance. Everyone should have more than enough concerns to address already.

Since Sept. 11, there has been much discussion about reordering priorities. It is time to start. The next time you get one of these e-mails, put aside pointless worries and do something: Hit the delete key.

Howard Fienberg, an expert on e-mail hoaxes, is a research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington- based, nonpartisan think tank.


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