Pitfalls Of The Digital Grapevine

Actress/comedienne Whoopi Goldberg speaks with "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley during a tribute at the Wheeler Opera House March 2, 2002, where Goldberg received the American Film Institutes Star Award in Aspen, CO. The event was held in conjunction with the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
Getty Images/Stefanie Deutsch
Telephone, telegraph, tell it on the Internet. The World Wide Web has taken gossip and innuendo to new heights of distribution, making everyone a fly on the cyberspace wall.

The problem is, it's that much more difficult to stop the spread of false information. CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports for Eye on America.

It was just one e-mail, but it threatened everything she believed.

Last month, Nerlande Louis-Jean, a professional career counselor and a devout Christian, learned from the e-mail that atheists wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ban all religious broadcasts, and every show that has a religious tone.

And that would mean no TV preachers and no Touched By An Angel, among other things.

God, she feared, would be banned from the airwaves. So she acted, which on the Internet means she clicked.

"I wanted my friends to know, so I also forwarded the e-mail to them so they can take action," she explains.

The problem is, that e-mail is bogus.

The FCC says, in fact, this petition to ban God from the airwaves is a 25-year-old hoax, resurrected -- and how! -- by the Internet. The FCC estimates it's getting a half million brand-new angry letters.

Today on the Internet, the more outrageous the rumor, the more people seem to believe. The fast food chain KFC has been hammered by the rumor that it changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because it no longer serves actual chicken but a mutant animal grown in a lab.

Then there was the e-mail hoax warning that bananas from Costa Rica contained flesh-eating bacteria.

It's hilarious, except for this: "It was a pretty damaging thing for our industry," says Tom Stensol, who represents banana importers. He says that one e-mail cost them $30 million.

Here's who else is not laughing: Congress.

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For a year, Congress has fought the false Internet rumor that it is considering imposing a five-cent tax on e-mails to raise funds for the postal service. Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) says the sheer volume of outraged public response turned a completely fake issue inta phenomenon.

"In terms of the contacts we had, it was an impeachment-level kind of issue," recalls the congressman.

Up there with the impeachment of the president of the United States?

"It's amazing, but it's true," replies McHugh.

Rumors always have been powerful. But, somehow, an Internet rumor casts a spell. It's in writing, and it comes from the almighty machine.

When TWA Flight 800 went down, the government spent millions testing the Internet rumor that a Navy missile was to blame. Investigators blew up a real 747, and test fired real missiles.

No matter. Peter Goeltz, who helped run the investigation, says truth is no match for the Web, adding, "And we spent an enormous amount of cash -- hard U.S. tax dollars -- knocking this rumor down. The problem is, the 'net keeps these things alive forever."

Now go back just a moment to the FCC ban on God.

We told Nerlande, with documents in hand, this was a 25-year-old hoax.

No sale.

There's something there, she insists. It was on the Internet.

"You never know," she says. "Maybe somebody is trying to cover up something."