WFU expert cautions new internet myths may be more harmful

A Wake Forest University expert says companies must be prepared to confront Internet rumors and urban legends circulating today because they are potentially more dangerous than those of only a few years ago.

Connie Chesner, an expert on Internet rumors and response strategies, is an adjunct instructor of communication at Wake Forest. She researches and consults on the topic of Internet rumors and says new characteristics make today’s Internet urban legends more believable – and potentially more harmful.

“What we’re seeing now are rumors that have malicious intent, are enhanced by higher quality technology, and have new features that provide apparent legitimacy,” Chesner says. “It is more difficult for people to discern rumor from reality.”

Chesner completed her master’s thesis on this topic, “Handling Hypertext Hoaxes: Organizational Response Strategies for Internet Rumors,” (www.wfu.edu/wfunews/2001/072401g.htm) in 2001 under the direction of Associate Professor of Communication and urban legend expert John Llewellyn.

She says rumors that focus on patriotism, like major soft drink companies editing the Pledge of Allegiance on soda cans, France’s Evian water mocking the United States (Evian is “naïve” backwards), and urban legends of people duct taping parts of their bodies after government warnings, are widespread because they prey on peoples’ fears. The ongoing situation in Iraq and the rebuilding effort there that includes plans for a wireless communication technology infrastructure may prove to be a boon to Internet rumors for several reasons.

“Many of these rumors are old stories that get a renewed life with a current-events twist,” she says. “In Iraq, rumors already run rampant regarding the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. Distrust and folklore are mixing in interesting ways, with even the Ali Baba, the hero in an Iraqi children’s tale about theft, being inaccurately used to categorize the looting which followed the fall of Baghdad. Technology will only increase that.”

Chesner says distrust and suspicion – fuel for Internet rumors – will continue to grow as the FCC deregulates. Technological advances allow networked communication to influence events far beyond mere email and Web postings. She points to the fall of Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001, the riots at the Miss World pageant in 2002, and Hong Kong officials’ reaction to a fallacious Web announcement that the city was infected by SARS earlier this year, as evidence of the power of the Internet. She says each of these events escalated rapidly due not only to rumors circulated on the Internet, but through newer communication technologies like text messaging.

Chesner, who is experienced with print and broadcast media, outlines specific response strategies that can save an organization’s reputation and resources. She is available for interviews regarding Internet rumors, their origin and their potential affect on organizations. To arrange an interview or for more information, contact Sarah Mansell at 336-758-5237, manselss@nullwfu.edu or contact Chesner directly at 336-768-5153 or conniechesner@nulltriad.rr.com.

Categories: Faculty, Research