The Anatomy Of An Internet Rumor

Being an internet celebrity can have its own rewards, but as anyone who has been there can tell you, sooner or later, you'll probably end up on the wrong end of a tale like this.

It starts with an email like this one, placed in the inbox of several prominent blogs earlier this week:

As of Sunday Dec. 14, 2008, there were rumors of a sex tape featuring both sexy ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews and the New York Mets' David Wright. The video was thought to have been taken after a Rutgers football game which both attended in October 2007 at a hotel in New Jersey. Both the camera and video were apparently later stolen from Wright's Mercedes soon thereafter, while it was parked in a garage near his home in New York City. Since then the thieves or their surrogates have shipped clips of the escapade to Hollywood porn producers, including Red Light District, the porn production company behind the "One Night In Paris" Paris Hilton video. David Joseph, Red Light's CEO, only offered, "We have seen the tape and we have yet to make any conclusions upon its veracity or whether we are interested in buying it."

When reached late Monday, spokespersons for Andrews, Wright and ESPN have no comment.

Ok, that was highly suspicious. No links or actual sources were included. Then this follow up, minutes later:

"Just dropping a line to let you know that the folks over at /b/ are making up a fake story about Erin Andrews having a sex tape with David Wright. Naturally, I do not wish to see my Princess' name defamed like that. ... Anyhow, they are making a fake torrent, rapidshare vid, yahoo questions, google analytics or some such nerdy brouhaha... the whole shabang"

That sounds about right. To their credit, most of the people who heard about this were wise enough not to bite, but when first-hand stories become third- and fourth-hand, and anonymous comments become independent verification, it doesn't take much for any rumor—even a false one—to turn into the accepted truth.

So what is this /b/, you may ask? For those of you less familiar with the more obscure corners of the internet, 4chan, and specifically the /b/ or "random" board, is the king of all internet message boards. It's a bizarre free-for-all, filled with porn, anime, insane discussion threads, and strange inside jokes that are often incomprehensible to outsiders, but they are also responsible for inventing or propagating many of the great internet memes, like LOLcats and Rickrolling. Their sheer numbers alone can easily manipulate Google rankings or take down unprepared websites. For the most part, it's just general goodnatured stupidity—but their power to influence the web is astounding. Amuse them and they will make you a hero; cross them and they will destroy you. You can read about some of their more famous antics here.

The thing is, these people get the internet (because they mostly created it), so there is a certain savviness to the rumor. They knew exactly the right person to target in order to send basement dwellers like us into a frenzy. They left all the right clues in all the right places, in order to reel in anyone trying to verify the story. The claim is just outrageous enough to be believable—she's a well-known web celebrity, but not so famous that no one would buy it. In other words, if you wanted to start a rumor that would set the internet aflame (and specifically sports nerds) it was the perfect crime.

The Anatomy Of An Internet Rumor

Most importantly—the groundwork for rumors of an Andrews-Wright courtship had already been laid. There was existing proof that they did indeed meet at a Rutgers home game in 2007 and searching for their names on Google leads to more speculation about a relationship. And look ... they're smiling at each other! Chemistry! Given their respective levels of fame, a romance is certainly not out of the question. (Even if a video taped dalliance certainly is.)

The use of a fake Joseph quote was a nice touch too. His company marketed celebrity sex tapes from Paris Hilton and Amy Fisher, so if you wanted to lend legitimacy to any such rumor, he'd be your go-to-go guy. I actually talked to Joesph on the phone and asked him about it.

"I have absolutely no idea what that is about. I don't even know who those people are. I suppose it's flattering that they would use my name, since we're know for celebrity stuff, but I don't like people using my name in a lie."

So there you go. For the record, ESPN says, "We aren't going to get in the business of dignifying baseless gossip with comment," which is exactly right. For all we know at this point, perhaps 4chan didn't even have anything to do with it. It could just be some crazy emailer with a Digg account and a dream.

But that's how things like this always begin.