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Monday, October 1, 2001

Using Net to spread canards
This time CNN at receiving end
Owen Gibson

IF we are indeed at war with terrorism, then it could be the first fought with the Internet as a key propaganda weapon. We’ve seen the Web used as a force for good, raising millions of dollars towards the Red Cross fund and helping families locate potential victims. As a news medium, it has come into its own, providing a depth and perspective that television never could.

But we’ve also read reports suggesting that the terrorists who wreaked such terrible havoc on the US communicated in code via news groups. And the power of the Web and e-mail to disseminate information around the world in the blink of an eye can also lead to confusion and misinformation.


A cursory glance at your inbox will tell you that e-mail is not the most trustworthy of communication media. The likelihood is that it will be full to bursting with messages telling you how to make a million without really trying or get a better body in 10 days. Most suffer an instant fate at the hands of the delete key. So how did a single posting to a news group speculating that CNN had used archive footage as a propaganda tool in the wake of the attacks come to be taken so seriously? The post in question alleged that CNN had used 10-year-old footage to illustrate Palestinians celebrating in the wake of the September 11 attacks. If true, this would of course be a devastating indictment of the power of the American media to subvert the truth. Within days, the mail was being urgently passed on with the familiar exhortation to forward it on to everyone that you know.

The source for the story, such as it was, is one Marcio Carvalho, a student in Brazil who posted the message onto the Independent Media news group at www.indymedia.org. It seems that he believed that a teacher had proof of the deception and was keen to tell the world. Before long, and in the familiar tradition of e-mail round robins, the e-mail had taken on a life of its own.

A new version began circulating — purporting to be from Russell Grossman, head of internal communications at the BBC in London, which added an extra layer of credibility to the claim. Grossman, who does indeed work at the corporation, is understandably not best pleased - and has no idea how he came to be associated with the rumour. A BBC spokesman explained that it had fielded hundreds of calls and e-mails on the matter and that, as fast as it could refute the claims, more inquiries flooded in.

Similarly, CNN has found it hard to shake off its association with the rumour, despite branding the claims "baseless and ridiculous", and confirming that the footage in question was shot in East Jerusalem by a Reuters TV camera crew on September 11.

Even the Universidad Estatal de Campinas-Brasil, the university at which the now infamous Carvalho studies, moved to deny the existence of any proof and declare the rumour false. But once an e-mail is out there, you’ve opened a Pandora’s box, and the fact it took five days for the organisations affected to realise its power can’t have helped.

At Media Guardian we’ve also had scores of inquiries about the rumour, mostly from people assuming it to be true and wondering why the mainstream media ignored it. After all, everyone loves a vaguely plausible conspiracy theory. Some even claimed to be in possession of the mythical tape that we now know doesn’t exist. The question is not how the message came to be so widely distributed so quickly — a thousand jokes, Web links and petitions bear testament to that — but how it came to be accepted as fact by people who would normally know better. We’ve received the mail from people in the industry who would normally consign such spam to the bin without a second thought.

The answer probably lies in the event itself. When hijacked aeroplanes have just crashed into two of the most powerful cities on earth, and the WTC has collapsed killing thousands, you’re ready to believe anything. The day itself provoked a level of shock and confusion greater than that caused by any western event since the Second World War. The fact that the e-mail seemed plausible was probably forwarded by a trusted friend or colleague and preyed on fears of media manipulation all added to its power. Like the cynical attempts to exploit the tragedy by sending out e-mails requesting donations to bogus charities, it relied for success on the receiver’s lowered emotional guard.

There were similar examples flying around the information superhighway all week, in particular the fabricated Nostradamus predictions that were picked up on by the press. Like any powerful weapon, e-mail and the Web have the capacity to be used for good and for ill. The medium may be relatively new but the advice doled out for decades becomes more relevant than ever — don’t believe everything you read. And more importantly, don’t forward everything you read. (GNS)