This Week in Rumors: There is Nothing More Frightening than Half-Truths

Carly Menacho

February 27, 2014



Rumors and Social Media

If you are like me, each year you receive increasingly more information about major events through social media sites. These sites are a great way to efficiently reach large groups of people, especially since many of us use mobile devices and can access social media sites from almost anywhere. Some of us experienced how helpful social media sites can be during events like Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey or the earthquake in Japan; however, you may have noticed how quickly rumors spread through social media sites and how some of the rumors were inaccurate or simply not true. Most fast spreading rumors fall under the category of “fear type rumors” and these types of rumors can be especially harmful in times of disaster or war.

Understanding Fear

Many of us are able to recall big news events that periodically thrust our population into uncertainty. Events, such as economic recessions, national tragedies, and war can cause mass panic, resulting in the spread of rumors. During these events people are eager to get up-to-date information and answers quickly, so when information surfaces, people are likely to take it as true and pass it on to others even faster. Most of the rumors that spread during times of panic are “fear type rumors”. At NarrativeTrack, we define these rumors as stories that are spread out of fear or anger about an event or person.

War Rumors

War is a great example of an event that instills high levels of fear. During times of war, we become panicked and uneasy. Populations obsessively search for information of any type that helps them make sense of events. This is when “fear type rumors do the most damage.

Nothing new under the sun

The spread of rumors during times of war is not a new phenomenon. Rumors of war even appear in the Book of Revelations. “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:4-8). Since the beginning of time uncertainty and fear of the unknown has been part of our makeup as humans. Spreading and processing rumors is a natural process that occurs during all times of war.

Word of mouth

In the United States, there was an overwhelming abundance of rumors during the Iraq war. Americans and Iraqis experienced high levels of confusion and fear from the lack of credible information about what was going on. Lack of credible information spurs rumors spread by word of mouth, through news, and over social media sites. Below are examples of “fear type” rumors that NarrativeTrack recorded during the Iraqi war.

1. Britain, the United States, and the anti-Husayn forces are plotting a coup in Iraq.

Origin: This rumor came from an Iraqi Mosquito, which is an assemblage of rumors collected from Iraqi citizens by American and Iraqi soldiers

2. Iyad Allawi personally cut off the hand of a prisoner who would not talk.

Origin: “Transfer of power allows Bush to sidestep anger over Iraq” by Maddox with The Times in 2004.

3. The U.S. found weapons of mass destruction hidden in Syria.

Origin: The Asian Wall Street Journal by E.S. Browning in 2003.

All three of these rumors surfaced during the early years of the war in Iraq. NT was able to track and analyze them in order to make sense of what was going on in Washington D.C. as well as on the ground in Iraq. The Navy was able to use NT’s coding process to classify rumors using rumor types, which helped them to assess how threatening a rumor may or may not be to and operation or information campaign.

Come back next week for Part III of the series where we will discuss “wish type rumors”!



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