Internet rumors can create chaos

Published 12:30 pm Friday, November 10, 2017

One lesson from grade school stayed with me through the years.

Our teacher whispered a statement in a student’s ear at the front of the room and the instructions were for each student to repeat what they heard to their neighbor until it went all the way around the room. Students were not allowed to ask for anything to be repeated and they were instructed to repeat what they thought they heard.

The result, of course, was that the last student had little more than gibberish to repeat of the message when the teacher asked him to repeat what he heard.

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I think most of us got the message at the time that rumors could spread easily but weren’t very reliable.

This lesson was on display for me earlier this week when hundreds of parents made their way to Harlan County High School to check their children out of school due to a crazy rumor, apparently started on Facebook, that a student was bringing a gun to school. There was, of course, nothing to the rumors, which were apparently little more than a hoax someone started, with the apparent intention of avoiding a day of school. County school officials took every security measure, including extra police officers, but that didn’t stop the madness from spreading.

The problem is that in today’s Internet world, rumors move much faster than they could when they were spread by word of mouth or even over the telephone. My guess is that most people knew the rumor probably wasn’t true but spread what they “heard” anyway, because what else in Harlan County could be more exciting on a slow Thursday morning.

Some have repeated the “better safe than sorry” line you always hear in situations like this, along with the “they should have called school off anyway just in case” comment you hear during the winter.

The problem with that is it only encourages more rumors by people capitalizing on the tragic death of a student to bring some excitement or drama to their lives or get a couple of extra hours to sleep, probably because they were up all night gossiping. If one threat led to school being called off, you’d have a threat every week.

People don’t believe CNN or Fox News because they worry that it’s biased toward one side or the other, yet choose to believe what someone’s brother heard from their sister-in-law’s best friend on Facebook.

In this case, it wasn’t even a threat, but instead, according to police, was an “alleged” threat. In our current Internet world, just the rumor of a threat is enough to cause chaos.