Fiction is stranger than truth

The Internet and e-mail have created a gullible village

Friday, October 1, 1999


Print Comments 
Font | Size:

THE CURRENT edition of Notebook, newsletter of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, includes what it calls a "true story from the Associated Press" about the bizarre death of Ronald Opus on March 23, 1994.

According to the POA Notebook report, Dr. Don Harper Mills, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, told the story at a 1994 gathering of the AAFS. Here is a short version:

Ronald Opus left a suicide note. But when he leaped from the 10th floor (not knowing he would land in a window-washer's safety net on the eighth floor) he was killed in mid-air by a shotgun blast from a window on the ninth floor. In that apartment, an elderly man habitually pretended during quarrels to shoot at his wife with an unloaded shotgun. But it was loaded. Should the case be declared an accident?

Police then learned the gun had been loaded by the old man's son, hoping his father would kill his mother. Should the son be charged with second-degree murder?

Finally it was discovered that the son was none other than Ronald Opus, despondent at the failure of his plot. Because the jumper had, in effect, murdered himself, the coroner finally listed the death as suicide.

We hated to check it out. But uncritical acceptance of the Ronald Opus report illustrates one of the unintended consequences of the World Wide Web: Its netizens are confronted daily with a phenomenal outburst of hoaxes, frauds, myths and urban legends in a medium without safety checks.

Told with specific detail, horror or humor, traditional storytelling devices and surprise endings, the classic urban legends are no longer limited to campfire stories (alligators in sewers, the jet-assisted Chevy Impala) or college dorms (the unsuspecting co-ed hooker's unsuspecting client, her dad) or the corner tavern (the bricklayer's mistake, the lawn-chair balloonist, the concrete-filled Cadillac convertible). But the Internet also throbs with hundreds of hoaxes that rely on send-along e-mail and chat rooms to warn of imaginary computer viruses (Good Times, Irina, Deeyenda, Death Ray, Internet Cleanup Day, etc.) E-mail chain letters falsely offer everything from free Microsoft Windows software (the "Bill Gates Hoax" ) to cases of beer ( "Free Miller Beer Hoax" ).

Internet myths are typified by the oft-repeated rumor that Walt Disney's corpse is soaking in liquid nitrogen, awaiting revival technology. And 33 million get-well cards were reportedly sent to the alleged little boy whose dying wish, although he is still alive several years later, is to get into the Guinness Book of Records for most get-well cards.

The deluge of fake news and mean frauds is far too heavy for the Internet's volunteer watchdogs and the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (www.ciac.llnl.gov / CIACHoaxes.html).

It's up to the Web surfer to develop a healthy skepticism. Let's start with the Ronald Opus story. It's a creature of the Internet, where it is told, and commented on, in thousands of web pages and chat rooms.

The reprint in the POA newsletter is but one example of its appeal. It inspired a 1998 episode of the "Homicide" TV series. A version was mentioned in another TV show, "Law and Order," and it inspired another plot twist in an Australian TV show, "Murder Call."

When a reporter intrigued by the Ronald Opus story finally reached Dr. Mills, he said it had an element of truth. Yes, he told the story to his fellow forensic scientists - but it was in 1987, not 1994. No, there never was an AP story or a Ronald Opus or a dad with a shotgun.

Mills said he concocted the hypothetical anecdote to show how different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry.

When a story is too good to be true, it probably is.<

This article appeared on page A - of the Examiner

Comments


Inside SFGate

Nano Alternatives Want something other than an iPod? No problem. Cnet has four players.
Path To Islam A former Pentecostal preacher talks about his spiritual path. Finding My Religion.
Money Tales Who knew it would be hard to give away a $250,000 prize for good writing?

San Francisco Chronicle Real Estate

From
Intero Real Estate

San Jose

3 BR / 3 BA

$498,900

Fremont

3 BR / 2 BA

$570,000

San Jose

4 BR / 2 BA

$560,000

San Jose

4 BR / 2 BA

$859,000

San Bruno

3 BR / 2 BA

$750,000

San Jose

3 BR / 2 BA

$399,900

San Jose

3 BR / 2 BA

$875,000

Mountain View

3 BR / 2 BA

$499,000

Los Banos

3 BR / 2 BA

$110,000

Brentwood

3 BR

$265,000

Homes

West SoMa blueprint to Planning Commission

A citizen-driven plan for transforming a gritty part of San Francisco's South of Market area into a more pedestrian-friendly...

Search Homes »


Cars

2008 Suzuki GSX650F

Let's face it - sport bikes provide a kind of excitement unparalleled by any other two-wheeled ride. They are also not necessarily the most comfortable rides for extended periods of time or during long distance rides....

Search Cars »


Jobs

Bay Area's best mixologists leaving bars for brands

While you're still likely to run into many of San Francisco's best mixologists in the usual cocktail...

Search Jobs »

Advertisers