False online rumor about Victoria, Hispanic boycott worries city leaders

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Emmett Alvarez opened an e-mail this week that contained a worrisome image.

The Victoria businessman stared at an attached photo of what appeared to be a legitimate newspaper clipping.

"Victoria Hispanic leaders, in opposition to pending immigration legislation, boycotted all Caucasian-owned businesses last month as a demonstration of their economic impact on the community," the phony news article asserted.

Count Victoria among the growing list of cities, entities and people marred by the power of the online rumor mill. At its worst, the Internet can serve as a water cooler on steroids.

Now, the speed at which rumors circulate only quickens as more worldwide users gravitate to the Web.

How has this particular rumor gathered steam, though, and what damage has it done? What can the city do to stop its spread?

Local business leaders and this newspaper regularly receive calls about the rumor from out-of-state media outlets and potential newcomers.

"I've been quoted about the rumor in newspapers from Detroit and Dallas to the East Coast," said Randy Vivian, president of the Victoria Area Chamber of Commerce. "I don't know how much more I can do to stop it."

A TALE THAT FEEDS ON IMMIGRATION TENSION

A rumor is a story or statement in general circulation that exists without confirmation of facts. Rumors are gossip, yet their power can sway hearts and minds.

While rumors can start anywhere, they increasingly originate online and spread via today's tech tools: blogs, e-mail forwards and social networking sites.

"There needn't be anything particularly special about the person who starts the rumor," said Duncan Watts, author of "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age," during a 2006 National Public Radio interview. "Rumors online get connected in overlapping social networks."

Consider these rumors, which originated online:

President Barack Obama was not born an American.

Church's Chicken is owned by the Klu Klux Klan and puts chemicals in food to sterilize African Americans.

Osama Bin Laden owns Snapple.

Rumors begin with deliberate misinformation, via an innocent misinterpretation of facts and from truths that become intermingled with untruths.

The Victoria boycott rumor - a tale that feeds on immigration sentiments - seemed to catapult online like a fast-spreading virus.

The rumor, which has circulated for years, asserts Hispanics declared the boycott a success because Caucasian-owned business dipped by 19 percent. But, the false rumor continues, Caucasian-owned business owners also claimed success: shoplifting declined, customers spoke English and paid with money, not food stamps.

Considering debate about national immigration reform, the rumor seems to grab those who stand firm against sympathetic legislation.

'THAT'S HOW IT HURTS THE CITY'

Local business leaders, the Victoria Police Department and even a popular online investigative website discredited the Victoria rumor, but to no avail.

The owners of Snopes.com, the investigative website, did not return e-mail requests for an interview.

Felix Appelt, however, talked in depth about rumors. Appelt works in the police department's crime prevention unit.

"With the Internet, it's the same thing with rumors as it is with all these online scams going around," Applet said. "People can put anything on the Internet and someone will believe it."

The Victoria rumor appears as fact in hundreds of blogs worldwide and even in a legitimate online publication in the United Kingdom.

While it's unknown who started the Victoria rumor and why, local business leaders say a resurgence online might be tied to the controversial Arizona immigration law.

People bond by sharing rumors, especially if the message resonates personally, Watts, the author, said.

"As far as this rumor goes, people who don't know Victoria might paint everybody here with a broad brush," Vivian said. "That's how it hurts the city."

'I'M NOT COMING HERE'

It remains difficult to measure the damage the city incurred because of the rumor, but Vivian said potential newcomers remain well aware of it.

Economic development leaders worry the rumor could damage future business opportunities.

"Outside businesses have seen it," Vivian said. "I think everyone in the world has gotten it. Potentially, someone could read that and say, 'I'm not coming here.' That's sad. To stop it, we have got to be consistent in our message. We have to denounce it quickly and challenge those types of thought."

The underlying concern about the rumor is that it could worsen the split between those on both sides of the immigration issue. In Victoria, the population is about even along Anglo and Hispanic lines.

"It can certainly fuel the fire, harden people's feelings," said Alvarez, the businessman. "Name-calling and accusations, threats, rumors ... We need to be a little more mature than that."

Gabe Semenza is the Public Service Editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.