The Dec. 26 tsunami disaster in South Asia, like the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, sparked numerous Internet hoaxes intending to make an already stunning event even more so.
Bogus stories mixed with true ones and floated across the Internet together. The most outstanding hoaxes featured fake or misrepresented photographs.
Perhaps the most deceptive hoax showed photos of people running from large waves coming ashore.
“I just received these photos from friend and former business associate,” said one e-mail accompanying the photos, according to the Urban Legends Reference Pages.
The photos were real, but not of the tsunami. They were actually taken in 2002 during the anticipated tidal bores that swept down on China and attracted tourists.
A similar tactic lay behind photos of deep-sea creatures that allegedly washed ashore after the tsunami.
One hoax e-mail said “deep sea creatures that live too deep to be studied are being found scattered throughout the wreckage. These creatures were washed up on shore when the waves hit.”
Again, the photos are real, but they weren’t taken after the tsunami. Instead, they were taken by underwater researchers from Australia and New Zealand in 2003 and are available on the researchers’ Web site.
Another popular photographic hoax was completely fake. It purported to show a mammoth wave bearing down on high-rises along the shore of Thailand or Indonesia, depending on the version of the e-mail.
“Given the enormity of the actual event, this is a snapshot which, if real, would have appeared on the front page of every major newspaper in the world by now,” reads analysis from About.com, which also points out the vehicles are on the wrong side of the road.
The Urban Legends Reference Pages points out that the original shoreline in the photo is actually that of Antofagasta, Chile.
Not all e-mails that circulated about the disaster were hoaxes, however. Several Internet postings called for help in identifying lost children and locating relatives. (See stories at About.com and TruthorFiction.com.)
TruthorFiction.com, which created a section on tsunami hoaxes, has also catalogued an e-mail carrying genuine tsunami pictures. The pictures came from DigitalGlobe.com, a high-resolution imagery company whose satellite photos show before-and-after images of areas hit by the tsunami.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, is a real photo (viewing cautioned) showing debris and corpses in the port of Banda Aceh in Indonesia. The Urban Legends Reference Pages notes that it was taken by a Reuters photographer three days after the tsunami hit. A cropped version ran in The Guardian.
The tsunami disaster also afforded hackers another opportunity to disseminate computer viruses. “Tsunami donation! Please help!” reads the subject line in a malicious e-mail, Reuters reported.
The e-mail carries an attachment that will infect the user’s computer and automatically forward the virus to others. It was not the first tsunami-related computer virus, Reuters said.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.