BOSTON, September 22—You’d think people would have something better to do with their time.
Within three or four hours of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, executives at Dunkin’ Donuts in Randolph, Mass., began to receive copies of an e-mail that was spreading like a virus around the Internet. “Attention all Americans,” the e-mail began, “Boycott Dunkin Donuts!!”
The e-mail continued with an explanation: “In Cedar Grove, NJ, a customer saw the owner of a Dunkin Donuts store burn the U.S. flag. In another Dunkin Donuts store in Little Falls, a customer saw a U.S. flag on the floor with Arabic writing all over it.
“We are starting a nationwide boycott of all Dunkin Donuts. Please make sure this gets passed on to all fellow Americans during this time of tragedy. We Americans need to stick together and make these horrible people understand what country they are living in and how good they used to have it when we supported them. Numerous fast food companies are at Ground Zero, giving away free food to volunteers. Where is Dunkin Donuts in all of this?”
The company investigated and soon ascertained that the story was untrue. It contacted the owner of the shop, reviewed store videotape, and spoke with employees. It found no evidence to support the allegations.
“We called about 40 people,” says Mike Lawrence, of Dunkin’ Donuts public relations firm Cone. “We asked them if they had seen anything personally or if they had just heard a rumor. All but two of them admitted they hadn’t seen anything themselves. The other two said they had seen the incidents, but when we asked for details—when they saw it, whether there was anyone else with them at the time—we couldn’t pin them down.”
Not only were the allegations about franchisees untrue, but Dunkin’ Donuts was actively involved in the relief efforts. Like many others, the company was donating product including coffee, donuts, baked good and supplies to recovery operations at the Pentagon and New York City. It also reached out to the Red Cross and contributed product to blood donor stations and triage centers throughout the country.
Over the next few days, the company heard similar reports concerning other franchises in other towns—ultimately about 1,000 separate e-mails. There were two common threads: none of the employees involved “looked American,” in the words of one of the e-mails (they included Indians, Moroccans, and Portuguese) and all of the rumors of celebration were completely unsubstantiated.
Since the attack had come in the form of e-mail, the company decided to use the same medium to mount its defense. It sent out e-mail messages to everyone who had sent copies of the e-mail, asking them to forward the company’s response to everyone on their mailing lists.
Said the company, “We believe it is important in the wake of the terrorist attacks that all Americans should be careful not to allow gut feelings or emotions to affect their actions, especially toward people of different ethnic, religious, or cultural backgrounds,” said the company in it’s e-mail. “We want to stress that the reported behavior is unacceptable to Dunkin’ Donuts, and it certainly would not be acceptable to the franchisees who own and operate shops.”
The response was heartening. Many of the people who had sent copies of the e-mail to Dunkin’ Donuts were apologetic.
“Thank-you for you swift reply,” said one. “I, too, have checked with the authorities in Cedar Grove, N.J. and have found the report to be unfounded. I SINCERELY APOLOGIZE for my urgent and hasty reaction to what proved to be an OUTRAGEOUS hoax.  I hope the tone of my note was not misconstrued; it was my intention to let the Dunkin Donuts management team know what I had heard.  I am completely saddened by any pain and discomfort that I may have caused any of your fine employees.”
Despite that reaction, the problem was not easily contained. “It’s like a brush fire,” says Lawrence. “When you stamp it out in one place, it flares up somewhere else. But we believe an aggressive e-mail response stopped it from spreading. Many people sent us messages apologizing, and promised they would send our response to others.”
For the most part, the rumor was confined to the Internet.     
“Initially we didn’t try to use the media,” says Lawrence, fearing it would simply give credibility, and a wider audience, to the allegations. “But we did start to get phone calls from the media two or three days into this, and when we got calls we responded.”
One media report came from Jack Cafferty, host of CNN’s World Beat, who lives in New Jersey: “The rumor going around town was that they began some sort of celebration on news of what happened at the World Trade Center and that they had put some sort of anti-American slogan in the window, and that the police had come and closed the place out of fear for their safety.
“Turned out, absolutely untrue. I stopped this morning. The cops were still in the parking lot. I said, ‘What happened here?’ The guy said they got 150 threats in the first two hours after this thing happened, and they had to close the place. It turns out the kids are Indian; they’re not even Arabic. And it was that rush to judgment based on appearance, that stereotyping, and it’s just an ugly, nasty, horrible example of the kinds of things that can happen.”
Dunkin’ Donuts also identified what it terms the “ground zero” e-mail, and says police are investigating how and why the rumor started.
There are still issues concerning flags, says Lawrence, including questions about whether the company’s franchisees are “displaying enough flags. I think it’s dangerous when people start to impose their own definition and loyalty on others.”
It’s even more dangerous in the digital age.
“If we’d had e-mail in the 1940, there might have been a lot more than just internment for us to feel guilty about,” says Lawrence. “E-mail has made bigotry more powerful and more dangerous.”