Newslore revealed true feelings of Americans after 9/11 attack

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- News-based folklore spread primarily on the web may offer insights into what ordinary Americans think about current events, including 9/11, according to a Penn State researcher.

In "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet" (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Russell Frank, associate professor of communications, analyzed the newslore -- jokes, rumors and doctored photographs circulated through e-mail and on websites -- about recent events in American history, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Soon after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Frank saw a growing wave of newslore about the attacks. Most of the material was not fit for distribution in the mainstream media. In one doctored picture, the Statue of Liberty is gesturing with an extended middle finger. Another photo appeared to show a tourist on the observation deck of the World Trade Center seconds before the plane hit the tower.

"So much of the material never makes it into the news because it tends to be tasteless," said Frank. "Most journalists would probably never report this information even if they heard it in an interview."

Frank said that there are several reasons why this contemporary form of folklore is important.

Newslore can be cathartic for both the creator and the recipient. In the case of Sept. 11 newslore, the jokes and images initially targeted Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda and one of the planners of the attacks. He was often depicted in doctored photos and cartoons as hunted by U.S. jet fighters or being tortured.

"One way to cut an enemy down to size is to mock them," Frank said. "You make them look ridiculous and you take away their power."

Frank said visual forms of newslore function as folk political cartoons.

"It's a rebellion against the piousness of the nightly news, for example," said Frank. "Or, it shows a resentment against people trying to tell us how we should feel."

After Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, a photo that seemed to show then-President George W. Bush and former President George H.W. Bush fishing in the flooded streets of New Orleans was widely distributed.

"It was just as powerful a statement as some political cartoons at that time," said Frank. "The message was that the president is out of touch."

While newslore often proves that no subject is sacred, Frank did note a delay of about a week before he saw jokes circulating about the WTC and Pentagon attacks. Initial examples also avoided making fun of the attack victims.

The tone of newslore changes depending on what web tool is used to distribute the material.

"You know the people you send e-mails to, so you bear some responsibility for the content, or people will think ill of you," said Frank. "Websites, on the other hand, are much more anonymous and that's where you began to find more of the sick jokes."

Frank collected the newslore for the book from e-mails and links that friends and family sent him over several years. The collection started with newslore about the Clinton administration, a time when the Internet and web technologies were spreading rapidly.

"The peak period for newslore was right around the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st," said Frank. "It gathered steam during the Clinton administration with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and continued through the Bush presidency."

Frank said that with the rise of social networks and as the novelty of the web wears off, newslore is starting to fade.

"It has slowed down a little," Frank said. "My sense is that people have moved on."

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Last Updated September 12, 2011