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The Michelangelo Virus – Hype And Fizzle

The Michelangelo virus was the first real appearance of computer virus hype in the media. Various "experts" made claims about how widespread the virus was and how much damage it was going to do when it triggered.

Michelangelo first hit the news in late January, 1992. A customer noticed that computers from Leading Edge were arriving with the virus pre-installed. The next day, John McAfee is quoted as saying Michelangelo was the third most common virus in the world.

Two weeks later, McAfee was quoted again, and this time he estimated that as many as five million computers worldwide could be hurt by the virus. This was a big, impressive number, and journalists ran with it. All through February, readers were treated to an assortment of information that was either overblown or just wrong. For example, several experts reported that the virus came from bulletin board systems, which is not true--the virus was spread on infected floppy disks.

One expert advised not shutting computers down on March 5th, the day before the trigger day. The virus would only be triggered by actually booting the computer on the 6th, he said. If the computer was never turned off, the virus wouldn't have a chance to trigger.

In early March, Intel discovered it was sending the virus with one of their programs. Several journalists took the words of McAfee and others, especially the estimate of five million infected computers, and spun wilder and wilder predictions of damage.

When March 6th arrived, the world held it's breath, waiting for the reports of mass destruction of never came. Instead of millions of computers, the virus barely hit a few thousand. AT&T, with 250,000 computers, said the virus affected two systems.

Critics pointed out that the people making the huge claims stood to profit--because they were also selling anti-virus programs.