The rumor spread across Pakistan in a blitz of text messages on cellphones.
There was a killer virus on the loose and all you had to do to catch it was answer a call from an infected number. The virus didn't hurt cellphones, but would -- eyewitnesses confirmed this -- cause users to drop dead. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority was forced to issue a denial telling users that it was safe to turn their phones back on.
Then there were messages claiming that Israeli trucks were carrying a million HIV-infected melons to Arab consumers in a new biological-warfare plot. This was not to be confused with other urban legends about a "Western-Zionist conspiracy" to use polio vaccines and other medical means to sterilize the next generation of Muslims.
"The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories often limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs," argued Husain Haqqani of Boston University, at a conference in Istanbul entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This recent gathering of journalists and scholars was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
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