Fake News, Then and Now
In his first fireside chat after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt urged Americans “to reject all rumors,” noting that “these ugly little hints of complete disaster fly thick and fast in wartime.” By summer 1942, FDR knew that executive admonishments had failed to curb the avalanche of false information circulating around the nation, so he signed an executive order creating the Office of War Information.
One of the OWI’s lesser known jobs was the “War Rumor Project,” a unique federal experiment in educating citizens to fight false information. The project relied on public employees such as barbers, bartenders, doctors, hairdressers, and police officers to eavesdrop on their neighbors and customers and report what they heard to their local OWI office. The OWI hoped to combat “the more prevalent” rumors “by striking at their root—ignorance.” This project left a remarkable window into the darker corners of wartime America’s psyche and serves as a guide for readers hoping to combat the avalanche of modern misinformation.
The more than five thousand rumors the OWI catalogued in 1942 fell into three major categories. “Anxiety” rumors were indicative of a nation worried about enemies everywhere: in Seattle, rumors spread that “the Japs are planning to blow up the water mains”; in California, rumors grew of a Japanese plot to put glass into food or to spread typhus by releasing diseased fleas into populated areas. There was supposedly a worker in an Illinois gasmask factory who intentionally poked holes in the masks. Barns in the Midwest were allegedly painted with identifying marks on their roofs to guide enemy bombers.
“Escape” rumors were flights of fancy that reflected people’s longing for an early end to the war. There were stories celebrating Hitler’s death or an early surrender from Japanese forces. These rumors highlighted the nation’s anxious hope that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
The most common category concerned “hate rumors,” which were mostly centered on bigotry toward African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Japanese Americans. People were overheard lamenting that Jews were “running the war” and were avoiding the draft by taking drugs that induced high blood pressure. Rumors about the suspected espionage efforts of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast played a part in Roosevelt’s infamous executive order 9066 and the internment camps.
One of the most widespread rumors related to African American women organizing “Eleanor Clubs,” named after the First Lady, made up of domestic workers who would go on strike in order “to have all white women doing their own work by October 1.” The governor of South Carolina ordered state police to scour every county for reports on “Eleanor Clubs.” While no evidence was found, the police reported that “the white people appear to be considerably disturbed” over what they were hearing about the clubs. The FBI tried without success to verify the existence of the clubs in other southern states.
The OWI’s project led to other efforts to combat misinformation. The Boston Herald, working with Harvard psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, established a “Rumor Clinic” that received numerous reports from readers, and each Sunday it refuted some of the major stories directly. The aim was to educate readers to ask, “Where did you hear that?” If no reputable source could be provided, one article claimed, “the rumor spreader will often be silenced by his own shame.”
A common perception is that rumors were usually spread by uneducated and isolated people, yet surveys undertaken by the OWI in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Portland, Maine, showed that people considered “well informed” repeated rumors 63% of the time, whereas those considered “poorly informed” did so just 25% of the time. Those with college degrees were more prolific rumormongers than those with only high school diplomas, and those who had “active social lives” were twice as likely to repeat rumors as those who led secluded lives. Students at Harvard and Radcliffe were polled about how they formed their opinions before and after FDR gave a speech attempting to refute rumors about the damage inflicted at Pearl Harbor. Twenty percent responded that even after hearing the president and reading official reports, in a time long before the internet and social media, they still relied on “rumor, confidential information, and inference” as the primary basis of their opinions.
Despite their best efforts to educate the public, the OWI and local rumor clinics found that even after being presented with the facts, people who were susceptible to rumormongering often stood solidly behind those stories. Efforts at educating large numbers of people influenced by rumor proved futile. University of North Carolina sociologist Howard W. Odum found that in some cases, the mere existence of a rumor convinced some Southerners of its veracity. “The very fact that there are so many rumors” about African American men waiting until white men left for the Army to rape white women, said one white Southerner, “is sure evidence that the Negroes do intend to do as is reported.”
By 1943, once it became clear that the efforts at combatting rumors were only helping them proliferate, the rumor projects were closed. Allport and Postman commented that “since people do not ordinarily recognize a rumor when they encounter one, and since they are seldom deterred from believing it simply because it is clearly labeled, we are forced to conclude that the public is not adequately rumor conscious.” They found that phony stories circulated “among those predisposed to hate the victim of the story,” and in the process confirmed “pre-existing attitudes rather than forming new ones.”
As modern readers navigate through seemingly endless amounts of “fake news,” it is helpful to be reminded of the approaches and frustrations of those fighting it nearly eighty years ago. Weeding out phony and sometimes dangerous gossip and speculation from accurate and verifiable information is a complicated process that requires far more than “striking at ignorance,” and it is an ongoing struggle whose stakes could not be greater. As Allport and Postman warned: “democracy is threatened by the ease with which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”
Tracy Campbell is the E. Vernon Smith and Eloise C. Smith Professor of American History at the University of Kentucky. His previous books include The Gateway Arch: A Biography and Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition, 1742–2004.