Of course, the orthodox media are great myth-makers. But, over the past few weeks, there has been an understandable drop in inconsequential blather about Vanessa Feltz’s dress size and Ainsley Harriot’s vol au vents.
Although there has been blanket coverage in the press and on TV of the World Trade Centre disaster, it has been constrained, largely responsible and relatively restricted in its range.
Everyone is singing from pretty much the same hymn sheet, with minor variations in opinion.
The Sun even ran a sober editorial under the banner: “Islam is not an evil religion”. These are strange days.
But out in the world weird web, curious material is proliferating exponentially.
You may have received the “turn Q33 NY (that’s the flight number and the initial letters of New York) into the Wingdings font in Word and see what you get” email; someone who understands your comic sensibilities may have sent you the Mr Bean Laden jpeg; and if the estate of Nostradamus could collect royalties on email transmissions of his text, it would be worth billions.
This is all pretty trivial. What’s not trivial is the totally new form of war propaganda that is having a serious impact on shaping our perceptions of the tragedy.
We’ve entered the world of the semantic attack – and it is an insidious web phenomenon.
Semantic attacks target the way individuals assign meaning to content. If something appears in print or on screen, we tend to believe it. We do not check the facts rigorously. We can’t.
More sigificantly, if a friend – or a friend of a friend, or even a friend of a friend of a friend – imparts information, we usually accept it at face value.
After all, a trusted friend offers the ultimate endorsement. No matter that the information comes at fifth, sixth or seventh hand; what we get from a known contact we are inclined to believe.
The internet offers unlimited access to friends of friends, as any email from a firm of solicitors reporting a woman’s readiness to swallow sperm will attest (remember that?).
Internet communications can be instant and anonymous. The story you once heard in the pub and told a mate the next day can now whizz around the world in less time than it takes to down a pint.
The story many of us heard this week was passed to us by one of our friends, who got it from someone else, who had received it from another mate (maybe in Peru), who’d picked it up when it arrived in his office in Australia.
According to someone at the BBC, the footage of Paletinians celebrating the bombing of the World Trade Centre was shot in 1991 and the people in the film were actually celebrating the invasion of Kuwait.
The rumour was not true. But for the hundreds of thousands of people who read the email that propagated it (or subsequently heard about it in the pub), it seemed true. Why? Draw your own sinister conclusions. And why am I saying this? Am I just another duped party to a further, multi-layered, impenetrable plot?
This isn’t the only conspiracy theory that is circulating. So next time you open your email, just remember you may be under attack.
The first wave of attacks on the effectiveness of computer technology was the hammer that smashed the hard drive; the second wave was the virus that destabilised the machine; the third wave targets the operator’s perceptions.
No firewalls in the world can protect against this onslaught. The attacks insert a virus directly into our hands, a virus that replicates itself through human behaviour.
Most of the time, this is all pretty insignificant. Probably it is equally insignificant now and, like Nostradamus’s predictions, these ruminations are all too farcically apocalyptic. However, we may be about to embark on the first great war of the world wide web, where careless emails could cost lives.
If all this seems a million miles away from PR stunts, it’s not. Great stunts are about using the press to get people taking, passing on a good yarn and disseminating a message.
What happened this week is the clearest possible illustration of the new media stunt: using new media and its unique characteristics to reach out to a worldwide audience.
This medium has a circulation that dwarfs that of any orthodox publication, it reaches more individuals more directly, more quickly, and more personally than any TV or radio broadcast ever can. In due course, it will provide the print and broadcast media with the material they need to fill their pages and bulk out their airtime.
I don’t know who was behind it but this phenomenon merits the first ever score of 10 on the stunt meter.