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Terrorist Urban Legends
Internet Sites Spread, Debunk Myths After Terror Attacks

Sept. 26, 2001 -- Huge numbers of people turned to the Internet on Sept. 11 for news of the attacks in New York City and the Washington, D.C. area.

But news isn't all they found: Almost immediately after the attacks, some darker corners of the Internet were abuzz with unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories, NPR's Rick Karr reports on All Things Considered.

Example: By Sept. 12, a prophecy attributed to the Renaissance French astrologer Nostradamus hit millions of e-mail accounts. In most versions of the message, the first lines of the prophecy go like this:

"In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning."


-- quote attributed to Nostradamus, 1654

"Five and forty steps the sky will burn
Fire approaching the large new city
Instantly a great thin flame will leap
When someone will want to test the Normans."


-- actual quote from Nostradamus (1503-1566)

Source: Snopes.com

"In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning"

But as Karr discovered, the lines were actually written by Neil Marshall, a student at Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario. He wrote the lines in 1997 as a high school student, for a Web site meant to demonstrate how the writings of this 16th-century mystic can be twisted.

In fact, Marshall told Karr, only the first four lines were his. The fifth line, he says, may have been tacked on by someone else to make the saying sound darker and more prescient.

The Nostradamus hoax is just one of the "urban legends" tracked by the husband-and-wife team of David and Barbara Mikkelson. On their own Web site, snopes.com, they aim to debunk Sept. 11-related myths -- at least 29 so far.

Photo: Snopes.com

This photo, supposedly found in the rubble of the WTC, shows an unlucky tourist on the observation deck before the first plane hit the North Tower. The observation deck, however, was not open at the time of the attack, and it's the wrong type of plane -- clearly a manipulated photo, and a hoax.
Photo: Snopes.com

Barbara Mikkelson says some of the myths turn out to be true, such as the report that a pair of disembodied hands were found near the rubble of the World Trade Center bound with plastic shackles. Many other myths reflect hope rather than hoax.

The persistent rumor that a government worker on the 82nd floor of one of the towers "surfed" the wreckage as the tower collapsed -- and survived the tragedy with only a broken leg -- is not true, Mikkelson says. But she calls the myth "an expression of hope" nonetheless.

Even sites known for trustworthy content are vulnerable to the urban legend. A site called IndyMedia.org, which gets its content from about 50 mostly left-leaning news sites, also allows its readers to post their own articles.

One of those articles insisted that television footage showing Palestinians rejoicing after hearing the news of the U.S. terror attacks was actually filmed in 1991, and taken out of context to put Palestinians in a bad light.

The footage turns out to be genuine. But the story, like other urban legends, has spread like a virus through the Internet.

Other Resources:

• Urban legends related to the Sept. 11 attack are explored on Snopes.com

IndyMedia.org