In order to detect and defend against rumors, it is important to understand how they are constructed. And one of the best ways to gain that understanding is to study an actual manual on how to construct and disseminate rumors. Thanks to Robert H. Knapp, we have such a manual.
Knapp, who was chairman of the Propaganda Research Division of the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety during WWII and a notable scholar on propaganda wrote a practical how-to Rumor manual for the Office of Strategic Services Planning Group dated June 2, 1943. The document was marked Secret and declassified in 2009. This manual is remarkable because the guidance it provides on principles of rumor construction is essentially applicable today. For example, the guide says:
“The successful rumor exploits the emotions and sentiments of the group.
a. It expresses a widespread emotional disposition shared by members of the group.
b. It provides justification for suppressed fears, hatreds, or desires.
c. It serves to articulate a sentiment common to the group.”
Knapp was forward looking when he recognized that techniques for spreading rumors would have to change to fit the means of communication:
“Different channels of rumor initiation and dissemination frequently require different forms and contents for the rumor. Thus the channel which it is planned to use (undercover agents, black radio, enemy mail, diplomatic media, etc.) should always be kept in mind when designing the rumor.”
You can read the full document here: Doctrine Re Rumors
Today with the Internet and Social Media, an arbitrary number of rumors can be simultaneously created and spread at unprecedented speeds over great distances and result in mass confusion and great damage. We must learn to defend against these.
In coming posts I will discuss some examples of modern day rumors disseminated through social media that had serious real world consequences.