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In 1940, the British military formed an organization as a part of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, called the “Underground Propaganda Committee” or UPC whose mission was to create and disseminate rumors as defensive weapons against the expected Nazi invasion of the the English mainland. They code-named the rumor weapons “sibs,” short for siblare, latin word “to hiss.” During the war they developed the craft and science of designing rumors and developed international networks of agents to spread the sibs. (Psywar.org has a great history of the UPC.)
During World War II the Americans, under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which eventually became the CIA, began cultivating their own rumor-weapon technologies with the help of the UPC and scientist Robert Knapp, who also wrote about rumors in an academic context. Knapp’s work was adapted by the OSS in 1943 to create a sort of manual for rumor engineers during the war. This document was de-classified in 2004.
Criteria for a Successful Rumor
- » The successful rumor is easy to remember.
- » The successful rumor follows a stereotyped plot.
- » The successful rumor is a function of the momentary interests and circumstances of the group.
- » The successful rumor exploits the emotions and sentiments of the group.
The manual says rumors are made memorable by being simple, making concrete references, using stereotypical phrases and utilizing humor, many of the same characteristics possessed by the Homeric poems and the rest of the oral tradition.
A stereotyped plot, according to the manual is “the oldest story in the newest clothes.” Old structure, typically derived from local myths, stories or legends, filled in with new content makes the best rumors.
Academic work on rumors suggests that they are “collective sense making,” they are a society’s attempt to understand something that is happening where official or formal information is scarce or non-existent. The OSS paper says that good rumors are “provoked by” and provide interpretation or elaboration on a current event, filling a “knowledge gap.” If the locals heard a big boom earlier in the day, a rumor could easily be constructed to explain it if the authorities did not.
If a group is known to have a pre-disposition to mistrusting a certain other group, like Diggers disliking Microsoft, rumors about the evils of Microsoft are easy to spread. The manual says that successful rumors justify or articulate an emotion (such as hatred, fear or desire) widely held by the target population.
The OSS/Knapp report sketches those people or “targets” that make good vectors for rumor spreading and what sorts of rumors will spread most virally amongst them.
1. Those people who are most eager for information about events which affect them are the best targets for rumors supplying such information.
2. People with fears, hopes and hostilities stemming from their involvement in the war are most affected by rumors that feed on those feelings.
The report also detailed certain kinds of information that should be gathered prior to designing a rumor for a specific group, including:
- » What kinds of information the group is eager for.
- » What information the group already has and what it lacks.
- » The current fears, hopes and hostilities the group already has.
- » The customary and traditional ways the group deals with those fears, hopes and hostilities.
Obviously, the information about the knowledge and emotions of the group should be gather in respect to what the rumor will be about. To use the Digger example again, if you wish to start a rumor about Microsoft, you should find out what Diggers want to know about Microsoft, what they already know and what they don’t know, how they feel about the group, and the traditional ways they express themselves about Microsoft.
The British UPC developed specially designed networks around the world through which they could seed rumors for maximum effectiveness. Each individual rumor was not seeded into every active network, as that would have appeared too obvious; rather, the networks were chosen for their appropriateness to the specific sib.
SOE’s whispering network in Turkey was a typical example of how the machinery for spreading rumours worked. A Chief Whisperer was appointed who then recruited ten Sub-whisperers, each of whom was chosen because they had specially good contact with certain classes of people from politicians and Army officers to waiters and barbers, for example. Each Sub-whisperer was conscious of the fact that he, or she, was working for SOE, but although they knew the Chief Whisperer, they did not know the identities of any of the other Sub-whisperers. Each Sub-whisperer then recruited ten to twenty unconscious agents to whom they passed on rumours.
The OSS manual also gave a little detail into how rumors should be spread:
- » Design different rumors that reveal the same “information.”
- » Plant such rumors in different suitable places.
- » Design them so as to appear as of independent origin.
The OSS and the UPC both used a tactic where several rumors were constructed and seeded in such a way that they appeared to come from different sources and took different “routes” to expose the same information to the targets. This way when a person heard more than one source tell complimentary rumors, they were more likely to believe them.
Have you ever tried to start a rumor? I’d love to hear some stories.