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Separating Truth from Fiction: An Interview with Rich Buhler

“9/11 was such a perfect breeding ground for erumors because it was not only massive, but there was so much uncertainty associated with it,” Buhler said. “We weren’t sure who did it, whether more was coming. It was nebulous.”

Sincere interest in what he calls “erumors” prompted him to launch the “eRumor Report” in 2001. This e-mail service updates subscribers on the latest rumors—and viruses—in circulation and provides “hoodwink insurance” for the discriminating communicator.
 
Buhler had actually installed the distribution software, tested the system and was ready to launch on Sept. 10, 2001.
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Hours later, he was watching footage beyond the pale of the erumors he tracks.
 
“I knew it was going to be a big deal in erumor land,” Buhler told EthicsDaily<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />.com in a recent phone interview from his office in Orange, Calif.
 
His media background—almost a decade writing, editing and producing “all news” radio in Los Angeles, and 15 years as host of a live, daily, nationally syndicated talk show—told him instantly that his work on erumors would be transformed.
 
Within 24 hours of the attacks, TruthOrFiction.com had a new rumor category: “Attack on America.” Within a week, Buhler had to upgrade the contract with his Internet service provider to accommodate the heavy traffic the site was getting.
 
“9/11 was a thundercloud,” Buhler said. “Prior to 9/11, my site had vitality, and there were a lot of people visiting. But it really didn’t occupy even 30 percent of my time. After 9/11, it became nearly a full-time job for a while. Now it’s backed off a bit.”
 
Now, Buhler spends about half his time tracking erumors, and the other half heading up his radio-television-film production company, Branches Communications.
 
TruthorFiction.com receives roughly 8-11 million hits per month, and it requires a full-time staff of 1 ½, plus three or four others who research erumors part-time.
 
Verifying accounts is sometimes easy, sometimes not. Buhler said the staff tries to get as close as possible to a firsthand account. Buhler estimated that 60 percent or more of the stories can be “narrowed down” by finding authoritative sources on the Web. Other stories, however, require telephone calls, e-mails and letters.
 
Sometimes a story is never verified and is categorized as such. However, Buhler said the networking made available by the Internet means that if there are facts to be known about a story, TruthOrFiction.com usually discovers them within 24 or 48 hours of the story’s posting.
 
That’s the nature of information in cyberspace.
 
“It occurred to me that the Internet was going to be the most significant factor in the explosion of rumors and the opportunity for people to find out that some of them are not completely accurate,” Buhler said of his idea to start TruthOrFiction.com.
 
“My purpose for this site is not just to follow up on funny stories,” he said, “but to recognize how much of what is passed around from person to person can be completely off base.”
 
His point, then and now, was not to run a site for those wanting to nitpick the distinctions between urban legend, hoax, myth and the like. Rather, he wanted a site for regular Internet users.
 
“Most people coming to my site aren’t really interested in academic discussion,” he said. They just want to know, “Is this true?”
 
Buhler, a 1968 pyschology graduate of BiolaUniversity, said erumors circulate because of several factors. First, they have a “wow factor.” That is, they contain information that’s exciting, alarming or engaging in some way. Second, they purport to give “inside information,” making them further attractive to senders and readers.
 
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, erumors float around because they are personal communications from one person to another “that one thinks the other might be interested in but won’t know if he or she doesn’t tell them,” Buhler explained.
 
“Whatever your shared interest is, that’s who you send it to,” Buhler said. For example, if two friends like to eat at Taco Bell, and one hears a story about roach eggs infesting taco meat at the fast food chain, then one will share the story with the other.
 
“9/11 created an enormous shared interest group,” Buhler said. “We were all affected by it, grieved by it, wondering what to do next. The erumor underground was vital to people during that time.”
 
For example, the second-most popular erumor after the terrorist attacks, according to Buhler, warned people to avoid malls on Halloween. Briefly, the common threads of the story held that a girl’s Arab boyfriend disappeared prior to Sept. 11. He left a note instructing his girlfriend not to fly on Sept. 11 and not to go to malls on Oct. 31.
 
One woman’s version of the erumor was the most widely circulated, Buhler said, “because her e-mail made it appear like she actually knew the boyfriend.”
 
“It caused her no end of grief,” Buhler said, because she sent the erumor from work (which was against company policy), the e-mailed inquiries about the erumor shut down the business’ computer server, and the phone inquiries nearly shut down the entire business.
 
“9/11 was such a perfect breeding ground for erumors because it was not only massive, but there was so much uncertainty associated with it,” Buhler said. “We weren’t sure who did it, whether more was coming. It was nebulous.”
 
And it fed the need to speculate and share “inside information.”
 
Buhler, an ordained minister in the Foursquare church, said Christians aren’t necessarily more susceptible to erumors. Every religion, every shared interest group, is vulnerable. “We’re just another shared interest group,” he said.
 
“But I do believe,” he concluded, “that an awareness of erumors can be of great value to Christians and hopefully cause us to do what the Scriptures say—to spread truth to one another.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.

Visit TruthOrFiction.com.