9/11 newslore gave regular folks a voice

PENN STATE (US) — The jokes and doctored photos posted online after the 9/11 attacks revealed the true feelings of ordinary Americans, according to a new book.

Russell Frank, associate professor of communications at Penn State, analyzed the newslore, or news-based folklore, that has surfaced in reaction to recent events in American history, including the September 11, 2001, attacks. He details his work in the book Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet.

After 9/11, Frank saw a growing wave of newslore. 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,” says Frank. “Most journalists would probably never report this information even if they heard it in an interview.”

Frank says 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 says. “You make them look ridiculous and you take away their power.”

Visual forms of newslore function as folk political cartoons, he notes.

“It’s a rebellion against the piousness of the nightly news, for example,” says 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,” says 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,” says 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,” says Frank. “It gathered steam during the Clinton administration with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and continued through the Bush presidency.”

Frank says 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 says. “My sense is that people have moved on.”

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