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This archival document circulated to Special Operations Executive propaganda agents in 1942 gives guidance on the creation of rumours, what are the qualities of a good rumour and some of the pitfalls to avoid.
March 9th, 1942
GUIDANCE FOR THE PRODUCTION OF RUMOURS
The following notes are based on rather more than a years experience of the machinery for producing rumours which has been set up in England, and are intended as a rough guide for those who may be asked to undertake this work elsewhere. They are therefore very general in form, and do not attempt to enter into details which would only be applicable to individual territories.
The first essential of a rumour is that it should serve a definite purpose. It may seem childish to emphasise this point at the beginning, but, experience has shown that there is always a great tendency in composing rumours to select or accept stories simply because they are brilliant improvisations as stories. The attitude of "Wouldn't it be a good idea to spread such and such a rumour?" is a dangerous one and the inventors of rumours should discipline themselves to decide first what effect they wish to produce, and then begin working out rumours which will produce it.
Rumours for general consumption (and this paper does not deal with rumours intended to deceive the enemy intelligence service), may be intended either to produce definite action by the general populace, or a modification in its mental outlook which will produce appropriate action at some later moment.
The type of individual action which can be effected by rumour is almost entirely economic. Rumour for instance plays an enormous part in producing inflation, hoarding, Black Market transactions, etc. We have clear evidence that in one country a rumour transmitted through us caused a three day run on the banks.
In preparing the populace for action rumour can do much to improve or destroy morale; in fact the greater the present distrust of official information which is spreading over the world becomes, the greater the effect of rumours will be. In general such rumours should suggest the essential strength of ones own side, and weakness of the enemy. A note on certain pitfalls in devising this type of rumour will be found in paragraph 3.
2. Qualities of a good Rumour
A rumour must be such that it will spread.
Essentially this means that it must be such that anyone to whom it is told will almost certainly repeat it not once but several times. It must therefore give pleasure to the teller. It is not necessary here to go into a detailed exposition in modern psychological language, since the main factors which give pleasure to the teller of rumours have been the common stock in trade of comic writers for at least the last two thousand years. In general the teller derives this pleasure from the sense of power which repeating the story gives him. This indeed is the basis of all careless talk. Specific subjects which will make a rumour pleasurable to repeat are enumerated below.
a) Self aggrandisement. i.e. "I am in the know, you are not". This explains the large number of stories about what Churchill said to Eden yesterday.
b) Horror. People will always enjoy making their listeners flesh creep, and also their own.
c) Sex. Those who have little opportunity for sexual experience consistently enjoy talking about it. Good sexy rumours also have the advantage that they are told and listened to in a more emotional frame of mind than many people realise, and they have therefore a deeper effect.
d) The amazing coincidence. The conviction that if two one-legged men were simultaneously struck blind at different ends of the earth, this would have some immense significance, seems to be quite ineradicable. Any story linked to such semi-occult events has a very good chance of spreading. This is the advantage of all astrological, prophetical, mysteric-religious rumours.
e) Wishful thinking. This always carries, but is dangerous. (see paragraph 3).
f) A scandal about the great. Rumours are mainly disseminated by people in low positions. Anything that bolsters up their pride by telling them that those in high positions are no better than they ought to be will always be popular.
g) Jokes. A good joke will usually travel, but it has the disadvantage that unless it is a very bitter joke it is repeated in a frivolous state of mind and has little or no proper effect. The Germans hardly bother at all about anti-Nazi jokes circulating in Germany, and they are probably right.
3. Some disputable points
a) Credibility. The balance of evidence seems to show that though it is better for a rumour to have some basis in fact, this is not absolutely necessary. It should however have what I may term an emotional basis in fact, i.e. it should fit in with the sort of thing which people believe likely or want to happen. Among ignorant people technical credibility is not of much importance. It was for instance believed in Morocco that amphibian tanks under their own power had crossed the Atlantic and it is widely held in Europe that letters are held up for months in order that they may be disinfected for typhus.
b) Wishful thinking. There is an obvious danger in disseminating stories about our own strength and intentions, if the reaction caused when they are found out not to be true is too immediate. It is therefore better in such stories to refer to events comparatively far distant in time or space and when speaking of what is near at hand to emphasise rather that we are heroic than successful. The technique of spreading hyper-optimistic rumours about their own success among the enemy in order to cause ultimate dismay by disappointment is one which may occasionally prove useful.
c) Horror stories. It should be remembered that atrocity stories are extremely dangerous. Among a people determined to resist or among a people oblivious of their danger they may be very valuable, but where morale is already shaky atrocity stories sometimes only contribute to a paralysing fear.
d) Sex. Everyone must gauge for themselves how dirty a sexual story can be. There is a danger of making stories so revolting that a large proportion of the hearers will never repeat them. On the other hand in certain classes you can go very far, and it should be remembered that the more lurid the setting the more firmly the rumour conveyed will stick.
Source: British National Archives, ref. HS 1/332