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Friday, June 21, 2024

Not only were the events of 9/11 overwhelming

 but so were the Rumors.


By Rich Buhler, Creator of TruthOrFiction.com

There was another historic effect of the Attack on America on September 11, 2001. It generated more rumors on the Internet through forwarded emails than anything before or since.

In the middle of the shock, anger, and uncertainty of that day, forwarded emails became the underground newspaper of the country. Those eRumors were a way that people shared information with each other that they thought was being ignored or overlooked by mainstream media. If a person received a message with news that was alarming, interesting, explanatory, or inspiring that he had never heard before it seemed to make sense that friends and family may have not heard of it either so he’d better forward it to them too.

Those forwarded emails were not only abundant but circulated at lightening speed around the world.

The Last Tourist

One of the first rumors was known as “The Last Tourist On the World Trade Center.” It was a picture of a young man posing for a snapshot on an observation deck atop one of the Twin Towers in New York. With the Manhattan skyline behind him he looked like one of a multitude of innocent travelers who had done the same thing. The difference was that in this picture an American airlines jetliner was closing in on the tower behind the unwary visitor and it appeared that he was a fraction of a second from disaster. The picture was accompanied by a message that said the photo came from a camera that was discovered in the rubble of the collapsed building.

We received more inquiries at TruthOrFiction.com about “The Last Tourist” picture than any other story about 9/11.

The truth is that the picture was a hoax.


We were able to quickly determine that it was a fake because of several parts of the story that didn’t fit with the facts. For example, only one of the Twin Towers had a public observation deck and that was tower number 2, which was not hit by an American Airlines plane but rather an airliner hijacked from United Airlines. We were also able to locate the actual picture from the Internet that had been used to paste the American Airlines aircraft into “The Last Tourist” photo. It was from the website Airliners.net and was a shot of a Boeing 757. The American Airlines plane that hit tower number 2, however, was a Boeing 767. Our readers also got involved and pointed out several other inconsistencies such as that the tourist was dressed for cold weather but the temperature in Manhattan that day was forecast to be a high of 81 degrees and that the airliners impacted the towers while in a banking turn, not in straight and level flight.

Several weeks later it was revealed that the picture was created by the man in the photo, a student from Hungary identified by his friends as Peter. He used Photoshop to paste the picture of the airliner into the shot and sent it to a few of his contacts as a joke. He never dreamed it would go to the inboxes of millions of people. He remained unidentified for months until some of his friends saw other people taking credit for the picture and they spilled the beans about him on the Internet.

Most of the time the readers of TruthOrFiction.com accept our findings but in this case we got a ton of complaints from people who had gotten emotionally involved with the picture and did not want to accept that it was fiction. Some of them were overwhelmed by it and grieved the loss of the simple-looking man on the tower who didn’t know he was about to die. Many said they had been weeping and praying over him and his family. They were not willing to believe that such an emotional investment had been stimulated by a practical joke, albeit a joke that was in very bad taste.

Terror at American Shopping Malls on Halloween

Another massively circulated email not only spread widely and rapidly but actually had documented impact on a segment of the American economy.

Shortly after 9/11 an alarming eRumor warned that there could be terror attacks at shopping malls in the U. S. on Halloween in October of 2001.

There were various versions but they all followed a particular pattern of rumors that sometimes pop up after civil unrest. A typical message described a woman who had a Middle-Eastern boyfriend who disappeared mysteriously in early September. He left a note, however, or later sent a message, that made it clear he was not returning and that alerted her to avoid flying on commercial airplanes on 9/11 and to stay away from shopping malls on Halloween. Since the email appeared after 9/11 and seemed to have predicted the attacks it was easy to think there was also substance to the Halloween warning.

The resulting tsunami of forwarded emails was amazing. Even people who were skeptical about the message forwarded it to family and friends anyway “just in case it might be true.”

There were probably dozens of versions of this eRumor spread by hundreds of thousands of people but one email in particular rose to the top and became the message that most people received and passed along. That resulted in what I call an “Unintended Internet Celebrity.” A woman who worked for a California company was distressed by the email and took a few seconds to pass the message on to her friends and family. Her name, email address, and place of employment were all in her forward and it also appeared as though she knew the story first-hand and was friends with the woman who had the Middle-Eastern boyfriend. Her simple dispatch became the one most often forwarded and it exploded into inboxes all over the world. She was immediately besieged with emails and phone calls from people asking if the story was true. Her place of employment was clogged with calls and the email traffic shut down their email server. She was not only embarrassed by all the attention but also with the fact that she wasn’t supposed to use her work email for personal messages.

The warning had a huge effect, however, and according to the International Council of Shopping centers (ICSC) there was a measureable reduction of shoppers at U. S. malls on Halloween that resulted in losses in the millions of dollars. It caused such concern that I was later invited to be a general session speaker at the annual ICSC Security Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

No evidence was ever found that the story was true and no law enforcement agencies had any credible evidence that there were threats to U. S. malls. Halloween 2001 came and went with no problems.

True Stories

There were plenty of true stories that circulated after 9/11 and some of them were inspirational.

One popular eRumor claimed that a new U. S. Navy ship, the USS New York, was partly constructed with steel from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The story is true. The USS New York was one of three ships carrying names that were associated with 9/11. The other two are the USS Arlington, named because of the location of the Pentagon, and the USS Somerset, named after the county in Pennsylvania where United flight 93 crashed after being taken over by hijackers.

There were several true personal accounts of people who survived the attacks such as the story of Michael Hingson, a blind man who was on the 78th floor of Tower One when it was struck by a jetliner. A report of him and his guide dog Roselle working as a team to escape the burning tower and helping others escape became an international news story.

Some of the most popular true inspirational stories from September 11 emerged from the experiences of airline passengers whose planes were diverted when the air traffic system across the U. S. was shut down in response to the hijackings. Delta flight 15, for example, was an international flight that spontaneously took refuge in Gander on the Island of Newfoundland, one of more than fifty jetliners that landed there for the same reason. The confused, uncomfortable, and inconvenienced Delta passengers spent the night in their airplane but learned the next morning that Gander and many surrounding communities had opened all their high schools, lodges, churches, and many other meeting halls into shelters and some residents even welcomed travelers into their homes. The passengers of flight 15 were cared for by the citizens of a town named Lewisporte. The travelers were so grateful that they established a trust fund to provide scholarships for students of Lewisporte to attend college. Many similar stories were told by the passengers of other planes that went to Gander.

Rumors that Refuse to Die

There are some emails from 9/11 that still circulate today. One of them has caused fits for the folks who make Pepsi, which has been unfortunate, because the story is not, and never was, about Pepsi. The eRumor claims that the soft drink giant created a patriotic can after 9/11 that had an anti-religious flaw: It left the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. The truth is that Pepsi did not produce such a can. The original eRumor was about Dr Pepper and that company did create a post-9/11 patriotic can. It had the Statue of Liberty on one side and a phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance on the other side. But it was not the entire pledge. Ninety percent of the pledge was omitted, not just the phrase “under God,” and there was no intent to focus on deleting a reference to deity. The eRumor left the impression that the whole pledge was quoted without “under God,” which, of course, would have been more incriminating. Somewhere along the way the Dr Pepper eRumor was altered and the name of Pepsi was substituted for Dr Pepper and the Pepsi version got wider and longer distribution.

These are all a good reminder that every time you click your mouse to send an email you have become a publisher on the largest publishing machine that has ever existed, the Internet. Even though you may have sent it to a handful of your friends it takes only a few generations of each of those friends forwarding it to their friends to spread around the world. No matter how few contacts we send an email to, they deserve to know that we’ve done our best to make sure it is accurate.

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