This article documents how an urban legend got started the weekend of June 28-29, 2008, how and why urban legends spread virally, and what you can do to spot them and stop them.
On Sunday, June 29, I received several forwarded articles alleging a large European banking conglomerate predicted a United States financial "meltdown" within coming weeks.
The forwarded story led me to a blog, not a news site, which alleged to provide a one paragraph abbreviation of the story, introduced by the statement "I was shocked to read the following, which was posted 4 hours ago...".
The article alleges that Fortis chairman, Maurice Lippens, expects 6,000 US banks to file for bankruptcy in coming weeks. It mentions that even large financial institutions, such as Citigroup and General Motors, will also be affected, and these events will start a complete financial meltdown in the United States.
STORY DOES NOT HOLD UP TO SCRUTINY
A quick internet search revealed the same abbreviated "article" -- only one paragraph long, with the exact same introductory statement -- has been posted on 269 other blogs and discussion boards. Most of these discussion boards allow anonymous posts, with no accountability required by the poster or author (such as the Sean Hannity fan site, the Ron Paul discussion board, etc). The story can also be found on Digg and other viral marketing and web ring sites, and I predict that you will probably see this many more times, on discussion boards or in emails, for months or years to come.
Most posts also claim that the original story was written in Dutch, and a few even contained a dead link to the alleged original story on Da Telegraaf, a Dutch news submission site. After searching the Da Telegraaf site, I was able to find the original story, which was submitted anonymously. It had no author, it sited no source, it came from no news syndicate (such as Reuters or Associated Press), and it was submitted to no news syndicates.
My first reaction to the story was that it contained all the elements of a net rumor or an urban legend, the kind my grandfather likes to forward to me: Bill Gates will give you $1,000 for forwarding his email; Obama isn't really a US citizen; undocumented Mexican laborers are going to get $1 trillion in free US health care but you are not; car jackers are going to steal your car by putting a flyer on your window; etc.
I next searched every legitimate news site I could think of, including press release sites, blogs or personal web sites by Fortis directors or employees, interviews, oral or written public statements, etc. I found no predictions of 6,000 bankruptcies.
THE REAL FORTIS STORY
Now, I am the first person to distrust mainstream news sources. And for years, I have said that the economic policies of the Bush administration are not sustainable, and we are headed towards a huge collapse. In fact, we are already seeing many elements of that collapse. However, this story appears to be nothing more than a net hoax, designed to inspire fear.
Fortis did in fact issue a press release last Friday, summarizing its efforts to raise capital over the last few weeks (1.5 billion euros) to protect itself against potential crash of hedge funds (particularly oil speculators). This is actually good news for most US consumers.
In early June, financial genius and progressive activist George Soros testified before Congress that oil prices have reached an artificial high of $140 per barrel. His opinion, and the opinion of experts throughout the industry, is that the price has been driven up artificially by futures market and other speculators, and just like the tech market correction/crash of the late 1990's, the oil market will soon correct itself down to the real price of $80-90 per barrel. This will most likely result in a price reduction at the pump, possibly a dollar per gallon or more.
Additionally, oil consumption has been slowing down over the past months, and for the first time in years, demand is lower than supply. Fortis's efforts have been simply to raise real money, to protect itself against artificially overpriced hedge funds.
THE ANATOMY OF AN URBAN LEGEND
Before my career in the nonprofit sector, I was trained as a researcher at the University of Kansas. Moreover, I earned a Master's Degree (with honors) in Religious Studies, where we were trained extensively in research methodology, including folklore, legends, and mythology. As I read this story, and look at the way it is spreading, I realize that though the delivery system (the internet) is relatively new, this story has many of the same elements as folklore and legends that are thousands of years old:
-It comes from a "reputable" source
Fortis is a company that most of us vaguely recognize as a world leader in the banking industry, but aren't quite sure what they do. In fact, all legends and folklore site experts or some slightly unknown reputable source (my friend's uncle is an engineer, this was written by a corporate insider, etc). Even the Gospel of Luke begins with a claim that the author has considered all the statements of eye witnesses, all the texts, and all other sources of information before writing his version of events.
-The expert is foreign (preferably European), and the original story is not in English
Not only was the source in Dutch, there were no English translations available, outside the one paragraph summary by the discussion board poster(s). This actually adds perceived credibility to the story. Americans tend to resent Europeans, yet trust their experts. We all seem to know, for example, that the Europeans have been driving hybrid cars and using solar and wind power for 30 years, yet this technology seems to be withheld from us.
This also begs additional question about the original poster(s) who coincidentally first noticed the story at the exact same time (4 hours ago): were all of these people bilingual Dutch-English readers? If not, how were they able to summarize the story for us, in the exact same manner? And lastly, English is the official business language in Western Europe - why would an international bank issue a press release in Dutch?
-It feeds on existing fears and insecurities
Most urban legends are based on economic fears, racial fears, fears or anxieties about technology or the future, fears or anxieties of gays or women, etc. It's not exactly a secret that most of us have been negatively affected by the slumping economy of the past 7 years, and by outrageous gas prices.
-A sense of awe and shock, and/or a secret story that was leaked
Ironically, urban legends feed on the notion that we are being hurt by misinformation or lack of information. This is a huge enticement to coerce many of us into action (or non-action). As psychologist John Bradshaw has said, many of us are still "stuck" in childhood anxieties, installed by our parents and guardians. Think about it: the most popular net rumors are the things that were the source of family secrets and anxiety when we were children: sex, gender issues, money, the future, etc. It is not difficult to manipulate people with more misinformation if you can find an unhealed nerve and touch on it.
-Sense of urgency
This story alleges that this story broke just 4 hours ago, and predicts the market will crash within weeks. This sense of urgency encourages us to read more, to share with friends, to sell all our stocks...to do something, anything, before checking out the facts.
-Details are vague and sketchy
I find it highly unlikely that a press release by a huge international firm like Fortis would make such a bold claim, even if it were true. Nonetheless, an authentic, savvy press release would include facts with details, names of banks and branches likely to be affected, etc. None of these elements were present in this story.
-It spread over the weekend
Be suspect of stories that "break" over the weekend. This is a trick used extensively by tricksters such as Karl Rove, because businesses typically cannot respond or react over the weekend, and news rooms are covering issues from previous week, not today's news.
If you look at the "whisper campaigns" started by Karl Rove in past election cycles, such as John McCain's "love child" rumor in the 2000 primaries, and the John Kerry swift boat and Navy medal rumors in 2004, they were all started over the weekend. They spread like wildfire on talk radio and over the internet, but candidates and mainstream news were not able to respond until the following week.
-A slight basis in the truth
As I learned as a child when trying to manipulate my parents, all effective white lies have a little bit of truth in them. As I mentioned, Fortis did indeed issue a press release, and it did indeed predict a crash of a specific sector of the market. And, of course, Fortis is known for its financial savvy.
THE OBJECTIVE OF NET RUMORS
While nobody can speak with certainty about human motivation, we can look at common themes in these rumors, which gives us a glimpse at why they are started, and why people spread.
When in graduate school in the mid 1990's, I received an urban legend email about Hillary Clinton's involvement in a murderous Black Panther gang during her law school years. We knew the story was false, but I decided to assemble a research team to try to track down the original source of the story, which was in fact very similar to the Fortis story.
After a few days of research, my team was able to pinpoint the first time the net rumor was posted. One person, an alleged professor at a state university, authored and posted the story on roughly 50 web sites in one day, then let the rumors fly.
We decided to take it a step further, and try to find a real name to go along with the pen name. This is usually not possible, but since the author identified himself with a state university, we made dozens of phone calls to the university until we tracked down the author. The poster was a 40-something janitor at the state university (not a professor), a self-identified Rush Limbaugh fan, who was fired for exposing himself to female students. We subsequently learned that he had been banned from several web sites for posting nude photos of himself in discussion boards as well. *(We still have some of these nude photos - feel free to contact me and I'll share them, although I warn you, they are not pretty.)
We typically don't think of urban legends as a tool for right-wing, regressive thinkers. But in many cases, fear appears to be a central theme. The reader is encouraged to fear *everything*, even the most mundane of daily activities (i.e., a flyer on your window). Lack of fear will leave you susceptible to being ripped off, carjacked, murdered, etc.
Fear-based stories have been used throughout history to manipulate children, to keep people paralyzed from enacting social change, to prevent action and activism, and to prevent change. Fear of racial minorities, for example, keeps us divided and prevents us from uniting for change.
Fear also keeps us focused on protecting ourselves, our homes, our loved ones, our families...and takes our focus away from systemic problems, from the environment, from our larger communities, from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and it certainly keeps us unaware of the ripple effects of our actions (and the actions of our country). For example, if we are preoccupied with fears of being carjacked at the gas station, we certainly do not have any time or energy to question the logic or ethics of our invasion and occupation of Iraq.
I have often said that while fear sells better, hope lasts longer. The lesson to be learned, of course, is to be weary of any information, regardless of the source, that tries to scare you into non-action. The world needs our hope and our activism. To quote the articulate George W Bush: "Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on... if fooled... if you're fooled, you can't get fooled again."