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Sociology, rumors and the big virus scare

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Sociology, rumors and the big virus scare

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

Disturbing revelations are coming from the personal-computer industry. They indicate that last fall's October computer virus scare may have been little more than a public relations gimmick.

Sources in the industry say that despite national TV and press reports, there was no evidence that millions of PCs were in danger from a virus—a computer program that enters a PC, damages files and data and then spreads to other computers. These sources have traced the scare to a publicity agent in New York City.

According to these reports, which are difficult to verify but appear trustworthy, a Manhattan PR man planted a story in the national news media that a virus was sweeping the world and was set to go into action on Columbus Day or the day after.

These reports say the PR man convinced TV and press reporters that the virus was spreading rapidly from Europe to the United States and Canada.

The PR agent was trying to stir up interest in two new books on computer viruses, sources say. That he was wildly successful was obvious from the stream of news reports carried on TV evening-news broadcasts and on the front pages of many newspapers.

What the media failed to report, the industry sources say, was that there was no independent confirmation of the virus danger.

This was demonstrated, they say, by the few actual reports of computer damage on Columbus Day or the following day, Friday the 13th. Many of the virus reports that did come in could have been attributed to normal malfunctions, leaving only a handful of possible virus cases worldwide.

Reports that the Columbus Day scare was overblown have circulated for months, but it was not until computer columnist John Dvorak mentioned them in print that the story has come into the open.

Dvorak, writing in the current issue of PC Magazine, names the PR man he believes started the scare. (I am not repeating the name here in the interest of fairness.) Dvorak even congratulates him, in a backhanded way, for scoring such a coup over the media.

I followed this development with great interest because of my efforts to share an anti-virus program with readers after the virus scare began. I answered countless telephone inquiries about the virus. I also received more than 600 discs sent in by readers in the U.S. and Canada, copied a virus-checking program onto them and mailed them back.

The virus-check was, and is, an important program, because it allows PC users to know for certain whether a virus has entered their PCs. I am now reasonably convinced, however, that I was among hundreds of journalists taken in by the mania.

We have been fooled before and we'll be fooled again. It's the nature of the business for journalists, like everyone else, to assume that if nearly everyone believes something, it must be true.

Of course, that is not always the case. The best examples come from the 1970s, when TV personality Johnny Carson created a shortage of toilet paper overnight and when unidentified oil-industry analysts made gasoline disappear in a few days.

Toilet paper vanished from store shelves when Carson made a joke about a shortage of toilet paper. People believed that it was actually in short supply and bought up all the stocks they could find.

Gas stations all across America ran out of gas when a rumor circulated about an impending shortage.

Such events are explainable in terms of sociology. But another way of looking at them is less scientific and more to the point: Quite simply, it looks like we were had.

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