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Can internet nutballs be neutralised?

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on” Mark Twain once said. And that was before the internet. Today, blatant falsehoods can circle the entire global numerous times at a speed even Twain would never have believed possible. What is worse, they continue to circle and recircle, even when truth, duly “booted” up, finally puts in an appearance.

How many readers out there also received a fevered email pointing out that typing the letters Q-3-3-N-Y and changing them into Wingdings font yielded an airplane followed by two vertical rectangular shapes (resembling the ill-fated Twin Towers), a skull and crossbones, and a Star of David? Q33NY was claimed to be the flight number of one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. If true, the images would have been indeed uncanny and not a little sinister. It is not true, of course. The flight numbers of the two planes were quite different.

Microsoft was kept busy for some time scotching rumours that it has been disseminating subtle anti-Semitic messages, or even being behind the 9/11 attacks. Ten years previously, the company had already felt it necessary to deny that its Wingdings font contained anti-Jewish motifs. Even so, suspicions remain. Apart from the annoying Q33NY scam continuing to do the rounds, I had prior to this received a worried call from a Jewish lady about whether there was any dark significance in the fact that the capitalised letters ‘NY’ yielded a skull and crossbones and a Magen David. It’s just unfortunate, I suppose, that ‘NY’ stands for New York, which remains the single largest world Jewish population centre.

Numerous other patently false theories were spawned by the 9/11 atrocity. One was that Sura Nine, Verse Eleven of the Qu’ran read: “For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome Eagle. The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah and lo, while some of the people trembled in despair still more rejoiced; for the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah; and there was peace”. The Eagle in this context supposedly referred to the United States and the verse as a whole to the latter’s taking vengeance on the Arabs for 9/11. In fact, the word ‘eagle’ appears no-where in the Qu’ran and Verse 9/11 is no more than a call to repentance.

There are, fortunately, counter-hoax websites (such as and the ever-helpful Wikipedia) that help discredit this sort of thing. I’m ashamed to admit that I only got wise to the Q33NY scam after my wife advised me to check its provenance through a simple Google search, but I did find out the truth re the Qu’ran verse on my own and had the satisfaction, such as it was, of putting others right about it.

Also incorrect, by the way, are many of the claims regarding alleged permutations of the number eleven when related to key aspects of the 9/11 attacks. For example, it was stated that the total number of victims inside all the hijacked planes was 254 and 2+5+4 =11, when the true number of was 265. (Well, okay, if you add 254 to 11 you do get 265, but really …)

All this shows how mixed a blessing the internet can be. Surely one of the most astounding tools ever devised by the human race, the fact that it can also be used by cranks and hoaxers to spread lies and disinformation has, in part, offset its usefulness. Internet technology has both revolutionised and democratised the dissemination of information. Long gone are the days when knowledge was the preserve of the wealthy ruling elite or the church while the vast majority of humanity was kept in ignorance. On the other hand, the democratisation of information dissemination, combined with the relative inexpensiveness of distributing it worldwide, has fatally undermined the kind of quality control that once prevailed. Poorly researched and expressed ideas that would never have seen the light of day had they been submitted to the critical scrutiny of responsible publishers now jostle for attention alongside genuinely useful treatises that are making the lives of writers and researchers so much easier. (As an example of the latter, my attention was drawn by a contributor to a previous article of mine to the following link providing an enlightening – if not particularly partisan – year by year summary of the Border War:

Disinformation is one thing; racial hatred is another. Some websites (such as are so virulently anti-Semitic that Jewish civil rights groups have called on Google to remove them from its site index. Others, however, have recognised the futility of such an approach, acknowledging that the proliferation anti-Semitic websites is part of the nature of an internet world and is a reality that has to be adapted to through education and sensitisation.

What may help here is the fact that the proliferation of information has become such an overwhelming torrent that a numbing effect has set in. Whereas a fiery pamphlet might have been able to stir people up to passionate debate and even violence in the past, yet another web posting is unlikely to have the same impact, no matter how provocative. Moreover, the internet is self-correcting in that it allows for offensive, untrue and off-the-wall allegations to be refuted via the same medium.

Getting back to 9/11, it was the television station of Hezbollah, Al-Manar, that launched the libel that 4 000 Israelis (which became Jews in subsequent permutations of the theory) had not reported for work the day of the attack and that the atrocity was therefore all a Jewish plot against Islam. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this continues to be widely believed, despite regular and thorough debunkings. The real problem at the end of the day is not the internet itself but the predilections, agendas and malign ideologies of some of those who use it.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.