WASHINGTON – The stories have spread panic quickly to already-anxious Americans — terrorists will attack on Halloween or poison trick-or-treaters’ goodies with anthrax.
Experts say the stories are not only false, they are old urban legends that have simply been updated with details to fit Americans’ current fears.
“All urban legends have the ability to superficially change to meet the times: they have this ability to be modified to contain contemporary elements,” said Mike Coggeshall, a folklorist and anthropologist at Clemson University. “That’s what makes them so effective.”
The latest round of urban legends have proliferated with the help of technology, as many are spread by e-mail.
Coggeshall said rumors and urban legends reflect the current social situation in America: People are on edge because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and recent anthrax incidents. He said they do not come from one source, but are usually the culmination of rumors and stories passed through e-mail.
But just because they are rumors does not mean they don’t cause trouble. Police agencies, for example, can waste precious resources investigating the stories and reassuring worried citizens.
“To me, the people that do this are terrorists themselves,” said Baltimore FBI spokesman Peter Gulotta, of people who perpetrate terrorism hoaxes and rumors. “We have to be careful not to be affected by that and feed on it.”
Experts agree the best way to determine if a rumor is true or false is to look to web pages, like www.snopes.com or www.urbanlegends.about.com. Baltimore also has a rumor hotline established to dispel misconceptions for the city.
Officials at America Online said they try “to keep a close ear to the ground” so they can stop Internet rumors before they get out of hand.
“These hoaxes are of concern because they alarm people unnecessarily,” said Tatiana Gau, AOL’s senior vice president of integrity assurance.
She said that “with the Internet being such a quick communication medium,” rumors and urban legends can spread quickly: AOL alone deals with over 250 million pieces of e-mail every day. The Internet provider has system set up that allows members to forward suspicious e-mails to AOL staffers, who review them and post warnings about the most threatening messages.
“We do have various filtering technologies in place to scan large quantities of mail at once,” Gau said.
But AOL usually does not act on e-mails that are rumors or urban legends like those currently making the rounds, she said.
Coggeshall said there have always been stories about foreign objects in candy, like pins, needles or razor blades. The story has simply adapted to the times with warnings that anthrax could be found in Halloween loot, he said.
Another rumor, that shopping malls could be attacked on Halloween, fits the urban legend mold of danger in ordinary things, Coggeshall said.
“It’s the same old theme of commonness and horror dressed up to fit the times,” Coggeshall said. “In a sense it’s a metaphor for what actually happened.”
He said urban legends often parallel reality. The Sept. 11 attacks happened unexpectedly on an otherwise normal morning; current urban legends stem from a fear that tragedy could strike during other ordinary activities, he said.
“Urban legends suggest that, in a common ordinary activity like Halloween and a common ordinary element like candy, lurks danger,” Coggeshall said.
While he downplayed the threat, Coggeshall also said there is nothing wrong with being cautious when it comes to rumors.
“Generally speaking, don’t be foolhardy, but there is nothing wrong with being a little skeptical,” he said.