Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Urban Myth Spreads Panic

Officials try to refute lurid tales of “lethal” phone calls, but word-of-mouth rumours prove stronger than truth.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
The rumour gathered strength throughout the day. First there were a few calls from various provinces warning of a virus transmitted by mobile phone. By late afternoon on April 16, a wave of panic had engulfed the whole of Afghanistan.

Some people said that if you answered a call made from a certain number, you would begin to bleed from the ears and nose. Others insisted that the calls induced immediate heart attacks, strokes or convulsions.

Fathers called their sons, warning them not to accept any calls from Pakistan. Fiancees begged their intended spouses to turn off their phones.

“It is a sign of Doomsday,” said one elderly woman, crying. “My son’s phone is always on. I don’t know whether he is dead or alive. Oh, Allah,” she said, raising her arms to the sky, “Please, please save my son.”

Ruman Garshasep, 20, arrived in Kabul from an outlying district of Afghanistan as the rumours spread. “When I got here, I saw people everywhere holding their phones and speaking in a very excited, very frightened way,” he said. “I heard two people talking about how if you answer the phone, your throat will be slit. So I turned my phone off for the entire day.”

Hamidullah, who runs an unofficial phone service, found that business fell away to nothing at the height of the panic, and was forced to shut down.

“People were in such a panic that no one came in to make calls,” he said. “I usually have 20 or 30 customers, and I make 200-300 afghani. People were saying that if you press one of the keys on the phone, you will die on the spot.”

Meanwhile, Hamidullah’s brother arrived from Paghman, a district near Kabul. “He took the phone from my hand and told me, ‘I don’t want your children to be orphans. God is almighty. Let’s go home.’”

By the evening, it seemed that everyone in the country had heard about the mystery electronic “virus” that could cause injury or death.

The ministries of public health, communications and interior affairs were forced to issue statements to reassure the public that there was no “death ray”.

Then they set about finding the perpetrators of the hoax.

“It was just a rumour,” said Abdul Hadi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Communications. “There is absolutely no scientific basis to it. It would be like trying to feed grass to your car.”

Hadi was careful not to say too much, but he hinted that “enemies of Afghanistan” were behind the hoax.

“The communications sector has progressed much more rapidly than other areas of the Afghan economy,” he said. “There are some people who cannot stand this. I think that this rumour was an effort to torpedo our success.”

On the evening of April `7, the interior ministry announced that four men had been arrested in connection with the case.

According to one version of events, the hoax was traced to a company that imports special “magnetic cards” that are hung around the neck and will supposedly protect the wearer from the harmful effects of computers and mobile phones.

An official in the Ministry of Communications, who did not want to give his name, alleged that the company involved put the rumour out in retaliation for a ministry statement telling people not to buy the magnetic cards.

“We told people that these cards were a fraud. So the corporation wanted to retaliate, and also to increase sales of its cards,” he said.

When IWPR went to the office of the importer, it was closed and locked. An elderly woman inside chased the reporter off, saying, “Go away, son. These people were arrested because of that mobile phone rumour.”

A policemen standing nearby confirmed that staff at the company had been arrested. IWPR made numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact the interior ministry about the reported arrests.

On the door of the office, a reporter saw a letter that the company had addressed to the complaints commission of the Meshrano Jirga, or upper house of parliament. The letter insisted the office was not engaged in “illegal or unscientific” activities, and claimed it had lost “millions” of US dollars due to what it called the communications ministry’s “propaganda”.

On April 19, one of Afghanistan’s main phone service providers, Roshan, sent mass texts out to all its customers, who number in the millions.

“There is no truth to the rumour that a deadly virus is being sent through mobiles. It is safe to use your cell phone,” said the text.

Despite such attempts to quash the rumours, many people in Kabul continued to believe that the phone “virus” not only existed, but had claimed victims. Almost everyone has met someone who claims he or she saw someone die, or at least knew of someone who had been taken to hospital.

“Who says it isn’t true?” blustered Kabul resident Abdul Matin. “I myself saw four people in the hospital on Lycee Mariam street, bleeding from their noses.”

But when a local doctor challenged him to go to the hospital and show him the victims, Abdul Matin backed down.

“Well, maybe it was my brother who saw them,” he muttered.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Kabul.

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