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IP: Internet Allows Lies to Spread Far and Wide

From: Richard Sampson <[email protected]>
Subject: IP: Internet Allows Lies to Spread Far and Wide
Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 09:04:48 -0500
To: "[email protected]" <[email protected]>

 Internet Allows Lies to Spread Far and Wide
Oct. 30 (Detroit Free Press/KRTBN)--When the telephone was introduced
to the American home, party lines and gossip ruled the day, as two,
three or half a dozen households shared one phone line.

Imagine, though, linking thousands of gossips on a party line. That's
how rumors called urban legends travel the Internet.

In April, the Taubman Co., the Bloomfield Hills shopping center
developer, was on the receiving end of an Internet whopper about a
mysterious stalker at the Mall at Tuttle Crossing in Columbus, Ohio.

The bad-guy-in-the-parking-lot story spread through Columbus, reaching
about 200,000 people.

Within months, the same story, which originated at least a decade
earlier -- no one knows where -- had been applied to malls as far as
San Francisco and Seattle.

Counteracting the fear sparked by such rumors takes a new approach,
and a new breed of consultants such as New York's Middleberg
Interactive On-Line Communications. Taubman turned to Middleberg with a
$10,000 retainer to stem the damage.

Amy Jackson, a consultant with Middleberg, began working on Taubman's
predicament in mid-April and kept on until mid-June.

"When Taubman came to us, the process had begun," Jackson said. "While
they had a superior PR staff, they had no experience in addressing an
Internet hoax."

The Taubman legend had the marks of a classic. "No one can identify
where it's sourced from; it's national," Jackson said. "It's a very
serious problem. There's absolutely no truth to it, but the Internet
spreads information instantly and globally."

Middleberg defines urban legends as false stories with multiple
variations. A story which varies in the telling is also the first red
flag to investigators that it probably isn't true.

Johnny Scales, general manager of the Mall at Tuttle Crossing, said he
read three versions of the story before crafting a response for the
Internet. "In one version it was a security guard, in another it was a
well-dressed man in a dark blue suit, and in the third it was a guy in
a T-shirt," Scales said.

Scales investigated the rumor and consulted with police before going
to the news media to refute it.

This particular urban legend was spread mainly by a network of
business and professional women, its membership ranging from
secretaries to executives. Many received the rumor, then hit a button
and E-mailed the story to friends, relatives and colleagues, without
questioning its origin or validity.

"There was a woman in Columbus who had hundreds of names on her list,"
said Chris Tennyson, Taubman's senior vice president of corporate

Defusing the rumors is far more difficult than spreading them, and
laws about passing on urban legends over the Internet are vague.

Larry Dubin, constitutional law professor at the University of Detroit
Mercy School of Law, said liability for making defamatory statements
could extend to the Internet, but it's difficult to prove a rumor's
source. "If someone merely repeats what they've heard as a means of
providing needed information to someone else," they aren't liable,
Dubin said.

"The question is: Does communicating through the Internet, because you
are disseminating information through large numbers of people, create a
duty on the part of the communicator to check sources, like a
journalist would?" Dubin said.

For now, the answer is no. The law figures public people and
institutions have access to the media to defend themselves, says Dawn
Phillips-Hertz, general counsel of the Michigan Press Association.

So businesses dogged by Internet rumors must use means other than the
courts to dispel them.

Taubman discovered what other companies, such as Neiman Marcus, have
discovered -- that the Internet has an almost magical effect on the
psychology of otherwise sensible people.

Neiman Marcus was the subject of a false rumor, about a dozen years
old, but new to the Internet. It said a woman went into Neiman Marcus
and ordered a Mrs. Field's cookie. She asked for the recipe, was given
it and later got a bill for $250. The story was sent all over the
Internet with a cookie recipe.

Neiman Marcus spokeswoman Molly Garr said when Neiman's gets E-mail on
the cookie incident, it sends customers an explanatory letter, and
includes the recipe.

Jerry Herron, director of the American Studies program at Wayne State
University, said stories like the shopping center stalker tale give
people a reason to avoid malls -- especially if they feel uncomfortable

"The very qualities that first made malls desirable -- open spaces,
consistent temperatures and lighting -- now make them spooky," Herron

"You feel creeped out at the mall, and you think, 'What's wrong with
me?' You listen to the story and you think, 'There's nothing wrong with
me at all. It's the mall, not me,' " Herron said.

By Molly Brauer

 Visit the four World Wide Web sites of the Detroit Free Press. Visit
Auto Authority at http://www.auto.com, the Freep at
http://www.freep.com, Jobspage at http://www.freep.com/jobspage and
Yaks Corner for kids at http://www.yakscorner.com

(c) 1998, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune
Business News.  TCO, NMG,  END!A19?DE-INTERNET

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