Heard the one about the internet rumours?

 

People have always loved to gossip but, as a new book explains, thanks to the internet even the most rumours can spread at an incredible speed, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL

DEPENDING ON who you choose to believe, reports on the internet in the past few weeks had it that Kanye West died in a car crash, placing sliced onions around your home can prevent swine flu, and mythical Latin American creatures with forked tongues, large fangs and sharp spines were seen in videos and photo documents. You just couldn’t make it up.

Well, almost. The internet has become the gossip’s playground, where rumours and falsehoods are spread, sometimes intentionally, and age-old libel laws seem to be routinely bypassed.

A new book by Cass Sunstein, On Rumours, attempts to lift the lid on internet falsehoods, how they spread and what can be done to tackle the problem. Earlier this year Sunstein (who is married to Samantha Power, who he met while working on the Obama campaign) became head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. With the rise of the internet, rumours, which have always been part and parcel of human history, have spread like wildfire and Sunstein believes it’s time we did something about them. For example, during the 2008 US election, Sunstein notes, “many Americans believed Barrack Obama was a Muslim, that he was not born in the US, and that he ‘pals around with terrorists’.”

During his campaign, the falsehoods became so widespread that Obama had staff dedicated to rebutting internet rumours as they appeared. In the internet era, Sunstein argues that it has become “easy to spread false and misleading rumours about almost anyone”.

So, who starts these rumours, and why? Rumours are started by all sorts of people or “self-conscious propagators” as Sunstein calls them, who want to make money, perhaps want someone to get elected or want to promote one particular cause or movement. They can be part of a pointed campaign of ridicule, large-scale publicity stunts, or have far more serious consequences, such as the death of 1,000 Iraqi pilgrims in August 2005, when a stampede was created following the false rumour that a suicide bomb was about to go off.

“We hardly need to imagine a world, however, in which people and institutions are being harmed by the rapid spread of damaging falsehoods via the internet,” Sunstein says. “We live in that world.” What can be done to tackle the problem? One way is for tighter definition of current libel laws, where having to prove “actual malice” is not a condition of successful prosecution.

He also wants social networking and blogging sites to be responsible for content posted by their members, and a mechanism for immediate withdrawal adopted across the internet. He calls this a “notice and take down” policy, whereby those who run websites would be obliged to take down falsehoods on notice.

Already, many in the online community have reacted with fury to Sunstein’s suggestions. In an article subtitled, “An Obama official’s frightening book about curbing free speech online,” a New York Post writer bluntly stated that: “Sunstein is an enemy to every news organisation and blogger. We should return the favour and declare war on him.” As online commentators might say, watch this virtual space.

Internet Hoaxes We Love To Pass On

FLESH-EATING BANANAS

Some years back, an email from the “Manheim Research Institute” – a fictional institution – began doing the rounds, and claimed that bananas from Costa Rica carried flesh-eating bacteria. They didn’t. The claim was a hoax. Yet the US Center for Disease Control was forced to release a statement refuting the claims. Experts estimate the hoax cost €30 million in lost sales.

DEATH BY DISHES

The global multinational Procter Gamble was forced to refute unsubstantiated claims that yellow sponges contained a form of Agent Orange. The line was that the disease could kill you slowly as you washed the dishes. Many websites and e-mails called for a boycott of the manufacturer. And many males thought they finally had the ideal excuse not to do the washing-up before it was revealed as a hoax.

UNDERARM DEODORANTS

Emails circulated stating that supposed ingredients in antiperspirants increased the risk of cancer due to the proximity of application to lymph nodes. The emails warned that these products contained greater risk for women who shaved their underarms. None of the claims was proven or had any basis in fact.

ONION CHARGING

The website ‘Household Hacker’, gained international attention in 2007 with a video that reportedly showed how to charge an iPod with an onion and a can of soft drink. The video attempted to dazzle viewers with scientific jargon, and gained widespread publicity for its creators. The premise was never proved.