Aug 17 2008

FAQ: How often does virus hysteria occur?

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Gullible users — many of them new to computers, some of them not-so-new — fall for virus hoaxes and believe virus myths every day. (“There’s a sucker born every minute,” you know.) No one can legitimately guess the number of duped users out there, but we do know the level of virus hysteria ebbs & flows like ocean waves. Today we might not see a lot of hysteria; tomorrow will make up for it.

We also sometimes encounter three types of hysteria hurricanes, or “hystericanes.”

Antivirus firms and the media propel the first type of hystericane, which comes as a dire warning about a “horrifying new virus” capable of destroying the Internet. A global panic ensues and can last for months, followed by an amazing anti-climax. These hystericanes follow a 3-4 year cycle — Columbus Day (Sep-Oct 1989), Michelangelo (Jan-Mar 1992), Hare (Jul-Aug 1996), and Y2K viruses (Apr-Dec 1999).

Gullible users alone propel a second type of hystericane, which starts either as a hoax or as an urban legend. Again, a global panic ensues and can last for months. Sometimes it reaches an amazing anti-climax; other times it slowly fades out. These hystericanes follow a 3-4 year cycle, too — the original Good Times hoax (winter 1994 to fall 1995), the AOL4FREE urban legend (Mar 1997), and the sulfnbk.exe urban legend (Apr-May 2001).

Antivirus firms and the media propel a third type of hystericane, which comes as a “red alert” about a virus attack in progress. A global panic ensues and can last anywhere from a day to a week. Major hystericanes seem to follow a yearly cycle — Melissa (Mar 1999), ILoveYou (May 2000), and Kournikova (Feb 2001).

Minor hystericanes of the third type occur between the major ones — ExploreZip (Jun 1999), MiniZip (Nov 1999), NewLove (May 2000), KillerRésumé (May 2000), Serbian-Badman (Jun 2000), NakedWife (Mar 2001), and HomePage (May 2001). We still don’t know if these minor hystericanes follow a cycle of their own.

False Authority Syndrome plays a major role in all hystericanes. Indeed, clueless people create much of the virus hysteria out there. We can’t stress it enough. They make bad assumptions about viruses, label those assumptions as facts, and convince others (including reporters) to believe them.

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