No Fear

Education prevents spread of viral urban legends


     When word spread that Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercial died after ingesting Pop Rocks with soda (his stomach exploded), there was considerable concern. Yet, the "news" about Mikey wasn't the kind of urban legend, or hoax, that caused citizens fearing for their own safety to contact law enforcement. Instead, they just were a little more cautious when they ate Pop Rocks. WiredSafety.org executive director Parry Aftab says this explosive tale is an example of an older urban legend.

     The idea that Pop Rocks and soda could cause serious bubble trouble sounded plausible.

     Before an urban legend is passed down, it must seem to somewhat make sense — and tap into an existing fear or a plausible fear, says Aftab, whose senior thesis centered on rumor mongering and its effects on business.

     When almost everyone was afraid of the Internet, e-mails warning about viruses were popular, points out Aftab, who wrote about this in her book A Parents' Guide to the Internet, published by SC Press in October 1997. People at that time had heard there were viruses and malicious codes. When someone sent an e-mail warning of a virus coming in just by opening an e-mail — without an attachment, that was scary, she says.

     "E-mails warning of viruses moved very quickly because they were important — if you couldn't open e-mail, then you couldn't use e-mail," she recalls.

     Today urban legends are more focused on security and less innocent, she describes. As consumers, law enforcement officers, like everyone else, need to know when something is real or not — and how to discern that.

     "You're going to get people who will call the station and panic … this isn't good for anyone," Aftab says. "You will need to be knowledgeable about threats and direct people to make good decisions."

Nashvillians receive hoax e-mail about gang activity

     When a hoax e-mail about gang activity was making the rounds in Nashville, Tennessee, the police department addressed it front and center on the department's home page, www.police.nashville.gov:

     "A hoax e-mail is presently circulating through Nashville warning people to be aware of increased gang activity and random shootings. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department's Gang Unit has determined that the e-mail has no validity. Hoax e-mails on crime issues are common in the United States. Citizens can refer to the Web site www.snopes.com to dispel many myths and urban legends."

     The Nashville hoax had been making the rounds in Davidson County, Tennessee. The police chief and the mayor's office were getting deluged with citizen inquiries, and the media was asking questions.

     "We were just getting inundated with this one particular e-mail," says Capt. Todd Henry of the Specialized Investigations Division, which includes the gang unit.

     Ignoring the urban legend wasn't an option because it became so popular in Nashville and the surrounding areas. Since the hoax was primarily being spread by e-mails, putting a notice on the department's Web site was one way to communicate with citizens in cyberspace. The notice was also e-mailed to council members and the community coordinating sergeants in each precinct (each sergeant then has community crime watch groups to e-mail). And, the police department issued a traditional press release as well.

     "Most urban legends somehow get personalized," Henry says. "It's not like a spam e-mail from somebody you don't know. It's an e-mail from somebody you do know. Once you look down the chain of e-mails, it seems like you got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend — and then it's somewhat personalized: 'my brother works for the police department or the government and here's what they say …' You tend to believe that your friends wouldn't lie to you."

     People think they're doing a good thing by forwarding an e-mail with a friend's safety in mind, but what the e-mail does is help blow the story out of proportion, he says.

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