Computer-Mediated Communication and the Dissemination of Urban Legends
Proposal for a Master’s Thesis
Presented to Professor John Caputo
School of Professional Studies
Under the Mentorship of Dr. Alexander Kuskis
School of Professional Studies
In Partial Fulfillment
Of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts, Communication & Leadership
Joshua W. Misner
We the undersigned, certify that we read this thesis and approve it as adequate in scope and quality for the degree Master of Arts.
MA Program in Communication and Leadership Studies
Table of Contents
Chapter One – Introduction and Definitions
Definition of Terms Used 7
Chapter Two – Review of Literature and Theoretical Basis of Work
Literature Review and Theoretical Basis of Work 9
Chapter Three – Scope and Research Method
Scope of the Study 16
Research Method: Fantasy Theme Analysis 16
Chapter Four – Fantasy Theme Analysis
Fantasy Theme Extraction & Rhetorical Vision 19
Truth Standard 26
Results Standard 27
Aesthetic Standard 28
Ethical Standard 29
Chapter Five – Conclusions and Recommendations for Further Research
Limitations of the Study 33
Recommendations for Further Study 34
Works Cited 36
Building upon literature suggesting that the sharing of fantasies can alter public perception of reality, this thesis supports that assertion by examining urban legend narratives disseminated via computer-mediated communication (CMC) media, such as email and internet message boards. Specifically, this thesis is a fantasy theme analysis of commonly transmitted urban legends found within the constraints of this media, focusing on the motivational appeal of the rhetorical visions contained therein and the potential impact shared rhetorical visions have on public perceptions of reality due to the rapid distribution potential of CMC media.
Introduction and Definition of Terms Used
Numerous studies in communication research have shown that people have a tendency to identify closely with fantasies if enough believable literary elements (hero/villain, plot, and setting) are present to emerge as salient themes from within the fantasy narratives (Benoit Klyukovski, McHale, and Airne, 2001; Bishop 2003; Bormann, 1966 & 1982; Crouse-Dick, 2002; Foss & Littlejohn, 1986). Correspondingly, if enough people identify with a similar theme or set of themes as a result of the same fantasy, a rhetorical vision can be developed, shared, and eventually chained out to an even larger population. Such a rhetorical vision may carry the potential to motivate the same group of people to rationalize a belief in irrational disinformation, often leading to actions based in part on such beliefs.
History shows people of all cultures creating myths and legends to cope with and understand the ineffable, but upon entering into a new era of communication, ushered in by the advent of the internet and digital communication in the latter half of the twentieth century, the means to propagate myth and legend have been redefined, in addition to the potential for ever-increasing and wide-reaching impact based in part on the motivation to action these beliefs foster. This revitalization of the human practice of storytelling, combined with a medium that lends itself to exponentially rapid dissemination, creates the possibility of symbolic convergence on a large scale.
Folkloric messages, also referred to as urban legends, spread by the medium of CMC, or computer-mediated communication (herein limited to e-mail, instant messages, chat rooms, message boards, and blogs), have an innate ability to draw readers into a fantasy, complete with the familiar elements of heroes, villains, plots, and settings, each of which in turn, can perpetuate the myth underlying the message via a process called “chaining out” (Bormann, 1972). Chaining out occurs when the message is powerful enough to motivate the reader to action and cause that reader to forward the message to whoever will receive it, creating a cycle of exponential distribution. Could long-term and widespread effects, such as a redefining of what is taken to be a common truth, develop from something as seemingly innocuous as an urban legend embedded in an email forwarded to friends and acquaintances?
The purpose of this study is fourfold:
To identify fantasy themes embedded in CMC-generated urban legends
To construct a rhetorical vision from the themes found within a majority of the urban legends in question
To evaluate the rhetorical vision using the four standards of fantasy theme analysis: truth, results, aesthetics, and ethics.
Lastly, this study aims to correlate the motivating effects of urban legends disseminated rapidly via computer-mediated communication (CMC) to their impact on public perceptions of reality.
Definitions of Terms Used
Catching On: Readers display emotional responses during the “catching on” stage of fantasy-sharing and begin to identify with a fantasy, substituting it for truth.
Chaining Out: After a group of readers undergo the process of catching on, the sharing of common fantasy themes with people outside the initial rhetorical community is referred to as “chaining out” (Kidd, 1998).
Dramatizing Comments: “Dramatizing comments are rich in imaginative language and consist of the following: puns, word play, double entendres, figures of speech, analogies, anecdotes, allegories, parables, jokes, gags, jests, quips, stories, tales, yarns, legends, and narratives” (Bormann, 1997, p. 255).
Dramatic Trigger: “A code word, phrase, slogan, or nonverbal sign or gesture; it may be a geographical or imaginary place or the name of a persona; it may arouse tears or evoke anger, hatred, love and affection as well as laughter and humor” (Bormann, 1985, p. 132).
Fantasy Theme: Statements ranging from “a phrase, to a sentence, to a paragraph in length” (Shields, 1988, p. 103) that are “developed as a group dramatizes an event by selecting heroes and villains, the central activity of fantasizing” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 90). Fantasy themes include “the dramatic characters, scenarios, and plot lines and the setting of the fantasy” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 92).
Fantasy Type: “A stock scenario that is repeated or shared over and over again” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 92). Additionally, the fantasy type can be thought of as “the abbreviated statement of the fantasy theme [that] allows the fantasy theme to be referred to in a rhetorical act without supplying all the details” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 96). “When a particular theme has been repeated so many times that audiences are able to recite the details of its characters, scenario, and setting, a fantasy type has been created, which can serve as shorthand for the entire fantasy” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 103).
Rhetorical Community: “Those who share the rhetorical vision” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 97).
Rhetorical Vision: “The composite dramas which catch up large groups of people in a symbolic reality” (Bormann, 1972, p. 398). A rhetorical vision is “the interpretation of social reality consisting of fantasy theme and type. Rhetorical visions illustrate what is perceived as important, real, and valid for a group or individual” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 104). On a mass scale, the rhetorical vision can be thought of as “a collection of fantasy themes and types, a unified putting-together of the various themes and types that gives the participants a broader view of things” (Bormann, 1994, p. 281).
Symbolic Convergence: Symbolic Convergence occurs when groups of people share fantasies with one another on related topics and form a unified consciousness as a result. “Individual members begin using the words ‘we’ instead of ‘I,’ and ‘us’ instead of ‘me.’ Members may even become attached to each other, and sometimes, group conformity takes place” (Griffin, 2006, p. 34).
Review of Literature
Rumors and Computer-Mediated Communication
Although the topic of the dynamics governing behavior that leads to rumor transmission has been studied at length, it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss a detailed review of literature regarding the psychology of such behavior in general. It is relevant, however, to examine studies of the impact on social perception resulting from rumor transmission via traditional means, as well as studies specific to rumor transmission via CMC.
According to a study by Bordia researching the causes of rumor transmission via CMC, rumor transmission is initiated by feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and credulity (1996). Bordia and Difonzo then performed a study to verify the results with quantitative measurements utilizing a computerized method of content analysis, and in doing so, proved that the primary purpose of rumor transmission is sensemaking based on the aforementioned feelings (2004).
A vital study in building a foundation for this paper was one in which the primary focus was delving into the nature of why people choose to forward emails in the form of chain letters (Kibby, 2005). In this study, Kibby quotes Ong to assert the nature of email as a form of secondary orality, or a new form of communication which shares characteristics with orality, such as “fostering of a community sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas” (p. 771), although it also shares qualities of writing through its inevitable permanence as a visual medium. She also defines urban legends as wholly separate forms of folklore that remain dependent on “continued oral dissemination” (p. 774), and compiles a list of general commonalities found in many folkloric email messages. The study was then quantified by a survey conducted among anonymous users of various internet mailing lists. While this study provides a valuable framework for further testing, its focus is broad in scope and is limited not only by the enormity of the topic, but also by the wide selection of both popular and obscure email messages used in the study.
Quantitative Impact of Urban Legends
Several cases have been examined in which urban legends and other rumors directed towards specific corporations were transmitted by word-of-mouth communication (WOM) (Wiwanitkit, 2007, Von Hoffman, 2007, Senard & Montastruc, 1996, and Pezzo & Beckstead, 2006). In these studies, the time taken for redistribution was not taken into consideration for each rumor, nor was the impact of acceleration CMC has on the rate of transmission. The studies do, however, provide pertinent information on specific, measurable effects resulting from traditional transmission of urban legends.
For example, Proctor & Gamble suffered a $19.2 million loss over a decade when a rumor was circulated by three Amway sales representatives naming the corporation as a major supporter of the Church of Satan (Von Hoffman, 2007). Additionally, a widely known practice of spreading rumors on Wall Street has led to strict government regulation on the dispersal of such information, such as in the case of Walter Piecyk, a New York analyst who circulated a rumor on a company in which he owned a substantial interest in order to sell his shares, watched the price plummet, and then repurchased even more for a profit of over $8000 during a one-month period (Rumor, 2007). Examples such as these, though not originated nor transmitted via CMC, provide an established offline foundation from which this study can be derived.
Accelerated Spread of Urban Legends and CMC
When considering a study on urban legends, their spread via CMC, and resultant side effects, it is impossible to ignore the global effects of the impact technology has on the crossing of physical borders. Krawczyk-Wasilewska notes that globalization makes any study involving digital communication look at how those communications affect more than just an immediate, local culture (2006). The latest revolution to occur in communication has turned our world into a “local village under a global cyber sky” (p. 253), which implies global consequences for the creation of any type of motivating rhetorical vision. Marshall McLuhan referred to this phenomenon as the “global village,” in which communication technology bridges physical divides once crossable only by physical means of transportation, thereby creating an increased sense of intimacy, despite the lack of physical contact (McLuhan, 1996). Anecdotal evidence to support the effects of living in a global village emerged from another study on the effects of legend transmitted via CMC, noting that urban legends originating as far away as the Netherlands have effects as far-reaching as Southern California (Howard, 1997).
In addition to urban legends spreading geographically due to borders becoming nonexistent in the context of the internet, they also spread at a much higher rate of speed compared to the traditional means of orality and print. One study conducted by Langlois (2005) examines an urban legend in post-9/11 Detroit that slandered a local restaurant where rumors emerged, telling of “celebrating Arabs” that cheered in jubilance after seeing the planes hit the towers. In her study, she demonstrates how quickly an urban legend can not only be created, but also spread and be acted upon when emotional triggers are especially powerful and motivating. It is due to this characteristic of spreading from one user to many in a short period of time that makes the concept of applying symbolic convergence theory to CMC-generated urban legends a topic of study.
Symbolic Convergence Theory
Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT) is the theoretical foundation supporting this study. Developed by Ernest G. Bormann in the early 1970s, SCT was originally an explanation of the transformation small groups undergo when they dramatize or share common themes and unify under a common vision (Griffin, 2006, p. 39). According to Bormann, “the drama is a mirror of the group’s here-and-now situation and its relationship to the external environment” (1972, p. 397). Such group dramatizations consist of “characters, real or fictitious, playing out a dramatic situation in a setting removed in time and space from the here-and-now transactions of the group” (Bormann, 1972, p. 397).
Some, but not all themes discussed by a group are legitimate components of a transformation from fragmented acquaintances to unified group consciousness and are marked by emotional responses, such as laughing, smiling, or crying. Once such responses have occurred, they “not only reflect the members’ common preoccupations but serve to make those commonalities public” (Bormann, 1972, p. 397). From the initial response stage, if the group accepts the theme as having a universal appeal to its members, then the drama is “chained out” within the margins of the group before being chained out externally (Williams, 1987, p. 12). These dramatizations eventually spread to the public sphere via routes such as word-of-mouth or mass media, which only “serve to sustain the members’ sense of community, to impel them strongly to action … and to provide them with a social reality filled with heroes, villains, emotions, and attitudes” (Bormann, 1972, p. 398). If the fantasy themes become anchored to the perceptions of the public-at-large, they have the potential to become a salient rhetorical vision. Bormann defines the relationship between rhetorical vision and media as follows:
A rhetorical vision is constructed from fantasy themes that chain out in face-to-face interacting groups, in speaker-audience transactions, in viewers of television broadcasts, in listeners to radio programs, and in all the diverse settings for public and intimate communication in a given society. (1972, p. 398)
Although the internet did not yet exist publicly when Bormann defined rhetorical vision and its relationship with media, a parallel can easily be drawn between television and radio to newer forms of digital communication due to their inherent ability to mass-communicate at an exponential rate of speed.
Development of Hypothesis
According to Grewal et al (2003), WOM remains the most effective form of advertising, regardless of industry. Accordingly, the influence of WOM on potential consumers is exceedingly high in comparison to other methods of communication in terms of financial impact on the business in question. This influence has the potential to affect a company’s bottom line in either a positive or negative way by motivating consumers to either support the business or cease patronization completely. One such form of WOM utilizes the new and emergent medium of communication, CMC, which includes electronic mail (email), web logs (blogs), bulletin/message boards, and chat rooms.
The delivery of a message via CMC is instantaneous and can then be transmitted to each entry in the recipient’s list of contacts, and then again to each of those recipients’ lists of contacts, etc. This new form of WOM has the potential to reach exponential numbers of users in a very short period of time, setting up implications for a new form of marketing, dubbed viral marketing, wherein a message becomes so powerful, it propagates itself without further action (GMI, 2008). When this concept is applied to the dissemination of disinformation, the original message can become an urban legend: “a story that appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in various forms and is usually false; contains elements of humor or horror and is popularly believed to be true” (Urban Legend, 2007). These messages are often designed to entertain or shock and, most often are aimed at negatively tarnishing the reputation of the subject of the legend, but in some cases, are aimed at framing the subject in a positive manner.
If urban legends that are created and disseminated through CMC are taken to be true and are redistributed exponentially as a result of users’ subsequent belief, then CMC-generated urban legends have enormous potential to impact public perceptions of truth. The hypothesis governing this study then, will be as follows: If urban legends distributed by the traditional method of word-of-mouth communication have a known potential to alter reality for a public majority, then urban legends disseminated by computer-mediated communication will carry the potential to alter reality for a higher percentage of public majority, due to both the visual nature of the medium and the medium’s inherently accelerated rate of distribution.
Scope and Research Method
Scope of the Study
The scope of this study is limited to a fantasy theme analysis of sixty prolific CMC-generated urban legends that have been proven false by a United States exploratory committee regulated by the Department of Energy (CIAC, 2008) and the chaining out of their rhetorical visions into contemporary society. This study is a presentation of analyses that establish links between fantasy themes embedded within urban legends (heroes, villains, settings, plots), the exponentially rapid rate with which such legends spread via CMC, and the rhetorical visions behind such legends’ long-term salience.
From the moment the method of fantasy theme analysis was conceived, it has evolved and it has undergone multiple alterations to best fit communication scholars’ differing needs. As Williams wrote in 1987, “Specifically, the steps to take when conducting a fantasy theme analysis are not clear” (p. 11). Kidd concurred with Williams and added:
The actual procedure for using fantasy theme analysis is not clearly defined in any step by step form. Rather, those who have used the method have provided models through their work and some commentary for a starting point. The method requires a degree of artistry, of creativity on your part. You must study each message you analyze and provide insights into it as you perceive them, using the fantasy theme analysis approach as a general guideline. (1998)
Bormann provided the basic framework for performing a fantasy theme analysis in his original 1972 article, the framework selected for use in this study. Before beginning the fantasy theme analysis, the content of the message communicated from the discourse being examined must be collected in its entirety. The most salient themes common to each of the distilled narratives consist of characters (heroes and villains), the phobia being appealed to, and the apparent specific purpose for telling and retelling the legend. Following extraction of fantasy themes, fantasy types will be examined by comparing the similarities present among the various urban legends. The similarities will then be compiled to reveal an archetypal rhetorical vision.
Once themes have been extracted from the legends and evidence of chaining out has been verified, this study can further interpret what motivating effects (if any) such dramatizations imply for a community that shares the resultant rhetorical vision, because “fantasizing is accompanied by emotional arousal; the dreams embodied in the fantasies drive participants toward actions and efforts to achieve them” (Bormann, 1985, p. 9). Beginning with the truth standard, the rhetorical vision will be examined to determine to what extent messages constitute truth or reality for the audience (Rybacki, 1990). Following the truth standard, the results standard will be applied to determine the existence of “cause-effect relationships between rhetorical visions and changes in belief and behavior” (Rybacki, 1990, p. 101). The third standard to apply to an analysis of the rhetorical vision is the aesthetic standard because it examines symbols used to trigger identification with the archetypal vision (Rybacki, 1990). In terms of the importance of the aesthetic standard being applied to this analysis:
… the aesthetic standard can be used to judge a fantasy in terms of how the elements of its drama function. Theories of film and drama may be appropriate at this level of artistic judgment. … Using appropriate theories in this way requires you to approach the fantasy in much the same way that a movie critic approaches a film: Does the fantasy work in a dramatic sense? (Rybacki, 1990, p. 101)
Lastly, the ethical standard will be applied for the purpose of addressing the credibility of the narrative of the urban legends in question: are there fallacies common to a majority of the urban legends and if so, why are they perceived as containing valuable social worth (Rybacki, 1990)? Together, these four criteria will be used to evaluate the archetypal rhetorical vision once extracted from the fantasy themes.
Once the rhetorical vision has been identified and evaluated, it will then be compared to the vision’s known financial impact upon certain organizations named in the urban legends included in this study. Such effects will be examined through the lens of George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory to demonstrate an alteration of public perception from a grassroots level.
Fantasy Theme Analysis
At first glance, each of this study’s sixty CMC-generated urban legends reads like a miniature story, complete with hero, villain, and other elements of drama, such as plot, theme, and dialogue. Unlike a film, novel, or play, however, these legends achieve a fusion of these elements in a mere two to three hundred words, or even less in many cases, making them prime candidates for a fantasy theme analysis.
To conduct a fantasy theme analysis, each of the elements must be identified clearly and, more importantly, consistently, but, taking into consideration the variation in writing style from one author to the next, the analysis must scrutinize carefully to ensure correct identification of each of the themes present. For this study, each urban legend, present in its originally produced text, was deconstructed to dilute the message into its basest form. What followed from this process was a brief list of common themes, including hero, villain, the phobia to which the author appeals, and the specific purpose of the message. When examined as a group, the themes were then compiled into a list for statistical examination, from which was extracted a clear majority of hero types (the primary character responsible for advancing the action), villain types (the character responsible for impeding the action), phobias, and specific purposes to be scrutinized before reassembling to compile a fantasy type and archetypal rhetorical vision.
A hero, better known in dramatic terms as a protagonist or the leading character, may not necessarily display the stereotypical qualities of a modern-day superhero, such as possessing superhuman power or exceptional courage. A narrative’s hero may be simple and nondescript, only present in the narrative for the sole purpose of advancing the storyline. For the purposes of extracting a fantasy theme, the hero is the character in the narrative that is the center of the action and is the reason for the action taking place.
Upon examination of the sixty urban legends taken from the CIAC compilation study (2008), the heroes extracted fit into four basic character types, all of which are the targeted reader of the urban legend:
American Consumer: This hero type is expected to engage in consumerist activity that includes direct spending, wherein the consumer is selecting an item and physically purchases it, but can also be expected to engage only in indirect consumption, such as receiving mail from the postage service. This type comprised 58% of the hero types in the sample population.
Female Americans: This hero type is based on a gender stereotype, characterized by being powerless and more prone to attack. This type comprised 13% of the hero types in the sample population.
Patriotic Americans: This hero type is expected to view the world through a patriotic lens, wherein all decisions are made in the interests of national pride and interest. This type comprised 13% of the hero types in the sample population.
American Christians: Similar to the Patriotic American type, this hero type is expected to view the world through a religious lens, specifically that of Christianity. This type comprised 5% of the hero types in the sample population.
Other hero types were present (6 types, or 10% of the population: African-Americans, the American Army, Attorneys, the Israeli Space Program, and Public Television/Radio), but appeared with far less frequency in comparison to the four listed previously, most of which occurred as highly specific types, such as African-Americans or attorneys.
Similar in type to its dramatic counterpart, the antagonist, the villain in a fantasy theme analysis must try to impede the action and conflict with the protagonist in some fashion. Although the villain in a fantasy theme may not be evil, nor may they even be a person, they are the subject and the reason for the phobia related through each of the urban legends. As with the hero types, there were four distinct villain types that emerged:
Large Corporations: Although not a solitary individual type, the large corporation is vilified as a harbinger of a variety of phobias through its faceless characterizations of callousness towards humanity. This type accounted for 38% of the villain fantasy types.
Foreigners/Foreign Countries: In several of the urban legends, this villain type is spotlighted for the sole characteristic of their affiliation with a country apart from the United States, if not the other country itself. This type accounted for 12% of the villain fantasy types.
Middle Easterners/Muslims: This villain type is singled out due to one defining characteristic: a tie to the Islamic world. This type accounted for 8% of the villain fantasy types.
American Government: Many urban legends begin life as conspiracy theories, and accordingly, the American government is the villain behind many legends, about 7% of the sample population.
Unlike the hero fantasy type, the “other” category is populated by far more specific villain fantasy types, accounting for 35%, or 21 of the total urban legends, and included alternate religions apart from mainstream Christianity, lascivious males, and patients infected with the HIV virus.
All of the urban legends selected by the CIAC (2008) for their list of the most common urban legends appeal to a phobia of some kind in order to motivate the reader to retell the message to a new audience. However, the list of phobias, once extracted from the messages and examined for fantasy types, provides the most widely diverse category of all the fantasy types:
Infection/Injury/Disease: In messages appealing to this phobia, 43% of the total population of messages in the study, readers are urged to be concerned about a wide range of external forces that, upon exposure, will lead inevitably to physical harm, whether it be from disease, infection, injury, or in extreme cases, death.
Infringement upon rights: This phobia appeals to people’s fears of being taken advantage of by external sources larger than themselves, such as the government or large corporations, a feeling that in essence, reduces to the need for a sense of self-control and independence. It represents 15% of the total population.
Terrorism: With many of the urban legends originating following the events of 9/11 and America’s “War on Terror,” it’s no surprise that 10% of the legends concern readers with the threat of terrorism.
Destruction of personal property: Similar to the legends concerned with injury, these legends also involve a damaging factor, but one concerning external objects associated with the reader as opposed to the readers themselves. It accounts for 8% of the total.
Anti-Patriotism: As with legends involving terrorism, legends incorporating the phobia of anti-patriotism appeal to sentiments of national pride following the attack on 9/11, with many of them employing an “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” philosophy. They account for 5% of the total.
Supernatural forces of evil: Being the most unique of the group of phobias, it isn’t surprising that it this also the least common of the recurring fantasy themes in terms of phobias, accounting for just 3% of the total. This phobia appeals to deeply held religious beliefs to suggest that we are in a war with evil that can only be stopped by performing the action suggested in the legend.
Within the “Other” category of phobias there are 9 very specific and rarely occurring phobias within this sample set, such as predatory oceanic wildlife and ingestion of a noxious substance not likely to cause injury, infection, or disease.
Any good story needs a plot or storyline to tie the elements together, because it is the binding that gives life to otherwise lifeless and empty words. In the case of the sixty urban legends, however, there is not adequate space to insert a well-developed plot into the brief anecdote. For this reason, each of the messages utilizes a similar element: a specific purpose, such as to inform, to persuade, to motivate to action, etc. By performing the fantasy theme analysis and reducing all the words within each legend to their most simplistic terms, the specific purpose becomes easier to identify as follows:
Warning message: The purpose of this message is simply to warn the reader of impending danger, regardless of the source or type. This type accounts for 58% of the messages.
Motivate to action: This message intends to persuade and motivate the reader to stop, start, or alter a behavior, and accounts for 30% of the legends.
Shock value only: These legends are few within the whole batch of legends (5% of the total), but serve their purpose well, that is, to simply shock the reader and nothing more.
The “Other” category for the specific purpose behind each message was the smallest of all the fantasy themes, accounting for just 8% of the total, and included helpful hints, an expose, and an attempt at revenge against corporate greed.
Once the fantasy themes are compiled and reassembled, taking only the top fantasy theme in each category, a rhetorical vision emerges:
Warning to American consumers: large corporations might be causing you or someone you know injury, infection, disease, and/or death.
A call to action might also be added to the formula, since it is highly likely to be a part of an archetypal rhetorical vision when taking into account the many urban legends that cross over to include a call to action in conjunction with a warning message. With this additional component in place, we can replace the generic terms with more specific terms relating to current events:
Warning to working women everywhere: the ABC Company, one of the largest multinational conglomerates and providers of women’s healthcare products, has just been sued in public court for using lead-based solvents to manufacture feminine hygiene products. If you use ABC products, discontinue use immediately!
Another variant of the formula for purpose of demonstration:
This was just reported on the nightly news: the XYZ Automobile Company, one of the largest automakers in the world, just issued a recall on all XYZ trucks due to the likelihood of explosion upon impact. It has been reported that several people have died already and estimated that several more may be at risk. If you own an XYZ, you need to contact your dealership right away!
This combination of fantasy themes accounts for 17% of the total possible combinations of fantasy themes that include the various types of hero, villain, phobia, and specific purpose, whereas all other combinations equate to a mere 1.7% each, or one-tenth the rate of occurrence compared to the rhetorical vision outlined above. Although 17% may not appear to be a majority, when compared to the frequency of all other urban legends in the sample of the most common CMC-generated urban legends, it demonstrates that a legend adhering to the formula of the rhetorical vision is ten times more likely to appear in any given email inbox than any other urban legend fabricated by humankind.
Several case studies exist to prove the extent to which readers of CMC-generated urban legends perceive the stories as viable truth. For example, in March of 2002, a veteran working with his local chapter of a Vietnam Veterans association, attempted to secure charitable funds from a local Target store, a request that was subsequently denied (Mikkelson, 2008; CIAC, 2008). The veteran then wrote a scornful and slanderous email about the Target Corporation, accusing them of having a strict policy of not supporting veterans, being French-owned, and giving money solely to gay and lesbian causes. His email followed the formula of American Patriot + Large Corporation + Anti-America + Call to Action, and to this day, six years later after the very same veteran issued an apology and retraction immediately following the original email, the Target Corporation still receives complaints from guests about its anti-veteran policies.
In another legend that adheres to the rhetorical vision formula outlined previously, one of the ingredients large corporations put into shampoo and toothpaste is believed to cause cancer. Sodium lauryl sulfate, which is interchangeable with sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate, are all mild irritants which, through their natural properties, cause the lathering of soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. According to Mikkelson (2007), the scare has a hint of plausibility to it, in that a chemical used in shampoo in the 1970s, ethanolamine lauryl sulfate, did contain a carcinogenic agent, nitrosamine, but although the chemical names are similar, the properties of the modern day lathering agents are far from harmful. The email continues to spread, being touted as truth by its proponents, despite being debunked by organizations such as the American Cancer Society (1998).
To prove a rhetorical vision’s motivational capacity, the results standard must be applied to show action(s) based on motivation resulting from the source of fantasy, in this case, the CMC-generated urban legends. As with the truth standard, there are numerous cases exhibiting action taken as a result of the urban legends.
According to Langlois (2005), an email was sent out on September 11th, 2001, describing a group of Arabs who celebrated publicly in a Detroit restaurant, The Sheik, when they saw the planes crash into the towers on 9/11. By September 12th, 2001, the restaurant began feeling effects from the slander and defamation, and the dining room of The Sheik was nearly empty (Zaslow, 2002). The email spread fast enough and caught enough of its readers up in the fantasy so that copies of the original email were being taped to shopping carts, urging others not to patronize The Sheik. Although the owner tried to file a defamation suit, the restaurant never recovered and eventually shut down.
According to Wiwanitkit (2007), one of the reasons the majority of CMC-generated urban legends involve an appeal to the phobias of infection, disease, injury, or death, is due to an actual psychological condition. In cases involving the potential for pandemics, such as the Avian Flu or SARS, cases were documented in which the patients showed no physical symptoms, but believed vehemently that they had somehow contracted the respective diseases due to a chance of exposure. The most recent variation of this condition has been dubbed “Bird Flu Panic,” and clinicians are being advised to be wary of patients claiming to have symptoms of the Bird Flu.
Lastly, as with the Target Corporation example cited previously in the truth standard, Target’s stores continue to receive guest comments asking them to support veterans or to sell off their French interests (Target, 2008a). As a result, a permanent page has been added to the Target website (Target, 2008b) that clearly states the company’s policies. Judging by the email’s continued proliferation, however, the retort by Target does not have the same motivational appeal as the original email that utilizes fantasy themes to catch its readers up in the fantasy.
With CMC-generated urban legends being less than 300 words in average length, every word has to be deliberately purposeful and advance the motivational appeal of the story being presented to create the desired effect of chaining out. To achieve this, dramatic or semiotic triggers are used to appeal to the pathos of the reader, which can take a variety of forms, depending on the hero and the villain of the legend. For example, if the hero that is being appealed to is the patriotic American, then the triggers may be related, such as the American flag, the Constitution, or any of the rights mentioned in the Bill of Rights.
In the rhetorical vision emerging from this analysis, with the hero being the American consumer and the villain being any of a number of large corporations, the dramatic triggers will most likely be in the form of appeals related to consumption and the hidden agenda being harbored by the corporation. For example, many of the urban legends included in this thesis address the ingestion of toxic substances that the corporation uses to manufacture their product at a cheaper cost and increased profitability, often made in an overseas country. For the American consumer, this phobia is an emotional appeal that taps into fears of the unknown: hazy quality control standards within the country of origin and/or the level of commitment of low-wage foreign workers to ensuring quality of their work.
For the ethics standard, the fantasies must be examined for recurring fallacies and the credibility of the narratives must be scrutinized for flawed logic and deliberate misrepresentation of the truth. In general, fallacies are abundant in most of the urban legend narratives, as well as gaping holes in logical syllogisms. For example, in the sodium laureth sulfate example, the author refers to the substance as SLS, which is the incorrect chemical abbreviation for the substance. SLS is the more common sodium lauryl sulfate and SLES is the correct abbreviation for the substance in question. Additionally, the author refers to statistics on the likelihood of getting cancer as being 1 in 8000 in the 1980s, but 1 in 3 as of today. According to the American Cancer Society, the statistics are nearly exactly the same today as they were in the 1980s (ACS, 1998). Lastly, the author refers to the disease as “the cancer virus,” a flaw in logic that becomes obvious once it is recognized that cancer is not a virus, but rather, a mutation of a cell’s genetic structure that causes abnormal cell division (Cancer, 2008).
A majority of the urban legends examined display a common flaw in logic and misrepresentation: misquoting sources or not quoting them at all. The original author of the legend narrative will appeal to an expert source, but fail to list the source. This is most often seen in the legends that refer to statistical evidence or scientific reports, but fail to mention an institution or provide a link for others to check for themselves. Without sources, the legends become mere anecdotes without substance or merit, but even despite the lack of appeal to ethos, the strong appeal to pathos is what continues to drive the spread of urban legends via CMC media. In most cases, a quick internet search of the salient terms in the message will return multiple, independently written articles debunking the myth, many of them written by the sources appealed to by the original author of the urban legend.
Urban legends disseminated by CMC media also have an inherent property due to their form that lends credibility, in that the permanence of the written word naturally adds credibility to the message being delivered, despite logical fallacies and missing sources. When a message is spoken, as in legends delivered by WOM, the message is gone as soon as the last syllable is delivered, left to resonate in the listener’s memory. In oral cultures, importance is placed on listening and memory due to the nature of oral communication, but with the advent of the alphabet and writing as technologies, less importance has been placed on these qualities. As a result, more trust is placed in visual documents versus conversations, although with the advent of instantaneous communication media, such as email, instant messaging, or text messaging, a “secondary orality” is developed, wherein the media adopt qualities of both orality and the written word (Ong, 1982). This unique property of CMC media helps breathe new life into the spread and believability of urban legends.
As demonstrated, fantasy themes are present in urban legend narratives delivered to readers via CMC media, and those fantasy themes share similarities that follow a basic model, or rhetorical vision. The rhetorical vision constitutes truth for many readers, as evident by both the continued spread and actions taken by those caught up in the fantasies, despite efforts made to debunk the myths by several organizations, including the United States federal government. The spread can be explained by the aesthetic appeal to pathos present in most legends, as well as the inherent nature of the permanence of the written word, as asserted by Ong (1982). What implications might this knowledge have for society as a whole?
According to Gerbner, the viewing of abnormally rampant and recurrent violent acts in fictional worlds leads people to believe that reality is equally violent, a property he dubbed the “mean world syndrome” (Griffin 2006, p. 389). Although this theory originally applied to television and motion picture media, it can also apply to CMC-derived media as well. If the rhetorical vision explored in this thesis is, as demonstrated, ten times more likely than any other urban legend to arrive in one’s email inbox, then, by applying Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory, it may be deduced that people who receive such emails and are caught up in the fantasies they present may be led to believe that the world is more dangerous than it really is, especially in regards to infection, disease, injury, or death and large corporations who have hidden agendas that put profits ahead of consumers’ well-being.
Limitations, Conclusion, and Recommendations for Further Study
This thesis is primarily limited by three mitigating factors relating to sample selection. The main factor in limiting the thesis is found in the sample size of urban legends collected. While the sample is representative of current urban legends due to using the most commonly circulated legends according to the CIAC (2008), it is not indicative of the total number of urban legends currently circulating the internet. Another factor lies in variations possible within other organizations involved in the study of CMC-generated urban legends. Such organizations may use a different system of rating, resulting in a varied compilation of what is defined as the most commonly circulated legends. Lastly, the list of most commonly circulated legends can change dramatically in a relatively short period of time, evident by the frequency with which the “Top 25 Hottest Legends” list is updated on snopes.com (Mikkelson 2008). This assertion concludes that, although this analysis may be valid for the last 5-10 years of urban legend circulation among CMC media, it may be rendered invalid if circumstances precipitate a new breed of legends, fantasies, and rhetorical visions.
Urban legends have always provided people with a means to rationalize fear and anxiety through narrative discourse (Bordia & Difonzo 2004), but by adding the complexity of disseminating those narratives via CMC media, the potential for the alteration of social perceptions grows exponentially. Prior to the explosion of the internet as a household tool, urban legends were distributed by WOM and affected one person at a time, or a small group in a worst-case scenario. Today, urban legends can be distributed to a nearly incomprehensible number of people globally within a very brief period of time. For example, if one person starts an email form of an urban legend and sends it to merely five people, and each of those people send it to five more, then by the tenth forward of the same email, it has reached nearly two million readers. With this ability to reach a mass audience in a short time and having a demonstrated motivational appeal, it is valid to conclude that CMC-generated urban legends carry the propensity to alter the public perception of reality by sharing and redistributing fantasies.
Recommendations for Further Study
A study with an increased scope, such as a more comprehensive sampling of CMC-generated urban legends would naturally provide a more concise picture of a salient rhetorical vision. Such a sample might be obtained via one of several organizations devoted to the cause of researching and debunking urban legends, such as snopes.com.
Experimental data using an urban legend fabricated from the rhetorical vision formula and disseminated into the public sphere would also benefit the study by demonstrating how these legends spread in terms of rate of distribution versus the plausibility of the narrative. Such a field study could take place in a more controlled environment, such as an intranet or a membership-only bulletin board with finite boundaries. Over longer periods of time, this study could examine the alteration of public perception due to the nature of the narrative, such as by the providing of dramatic triggers to people exposed to the faux myth and observing their reactions to the trigger.
Lastly, by repeating this study or any of the suggestions for further research on legends originating from or propagating within countries outside the United States would be beneficial in contrasting the effects of CMC-generated urban legends on different cultures. Such a study would also help to see how America is perceived throughout the rest of the world.
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