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This archival document, intended as a brief introduction, was provided to Special Operations Executive propaganda agents tasked with setting up a rumour spreading organisation.
The best way to describe the organisation of rumour-spreading is perhaps to detail the method adopted in one country. For this purpose we will select Turkey.
A chief whisperer was appointed who passed on the rumours to agents working among all classes.
The Turkish public was divided into three categories:-
- The Intelligentsia.
- The Middle Classes.
- The Lower Classes.
Agents were appointed to deal with each category, and they in their turn appointed sub-agents. These sub-agents need not to conscious that they are being used to spread rumours at all. In Class 1 the agents included an M.P., several students, a professor and a pensioned officer. Class 2 included business men, civil servants, journalists and junior officers. Class 3, hair-dressers, waiters, shop assistants, news vendors, merchant-seamen, tailors, etc.
The procedure was for the organiser to pass the rumours to a head agent for each section who was responsible for disseminating it in his section. The head agent received a monthly salary. The sub-agents may have got a tip or present occasionally but were not regularly on the pay-roll.
Those responsible for Rumour Organisations should bear in mind the following points:-
- They should not whisper themselves, but should select sub-agents.
- These sub-agents should be chosen for their connections in various circles.
- It should always be remembered that most of the rumours will be designed to travel from the country in which they are spread, to an enemy or enemy-occupied, country.
- Special channels should be sought for "smoke-screen" rumours and these channels should be very sparingly used.
The Technique of Whispering
Whispering consists not in talking yourself, but in making other people talk. They will do this only if the whisper interests them and this is more important than that they should believe it. Whispers can be started in the following ways:-
- By sub-agents repeating the story by word of mouth.
- By repeating the story in a loud voice in front of third parties. It was found in Turkey that German-speaking Poles were successful in communicating alarmist stories to the German colony by repeating them to each other in public and in German. Talking in front of servants, hairdressers, waiters, etc., is often more effective than direct repetition, because the person overhearing the story imagines "he is on to a good thing."
- Jetsam, i.e. notes left in telephone boxes, letters sent to wrong addresses, waste-paper baskets in hotels, etc.
- Faked Stop Press announcements in newspapers. A valuable trick because it can always be claimed that the announcement was "hushed up". It is also easy to fake the printing of the Stop Press.
- Talking on telephone wires, known to be tapped or taking advantage of the chance of crossed lines, when it occurs.
- Press and radio, where any control is exercised over these, may be used to support whispers but are not themselves to be regarded as whispering channels. A more round-about way of using the Press is to secure publication in a small local paper and telegraph this by secure means to London, where quotation can be arranged in other papers, these quotations in their turn being used to spread the rumour more widely.
In all these methods it should be remembered that a story travels better if it is tied up with topical events - scandal, horrors or whatever it is people like to talk about.
- "That the chief whisperer should himself be garrulous." On the contrary, he should be a known discreet man. Not only would it be fatal to the whispering organisation if its Chief were to be marked down as a spreader of subversive rumours but it is important to change the smallest conscious and unconscious agents as often as possible.
- "That the best thing to do with a whisper is to get the whole world talking about it." This may be true of some whispers, e.g. atrocity stories, but it is quite untrue of (a) "smoke-screen" rumours where it would immediately stamp them as "inspired", and (b) of rumours intended to travel from a neutral country to enemy or enemy-occupied countries. Here it will be far more effective, for instance, to get three servants in the chief German hotel repeating the story, than to get the whole of the pro-Allied population telling it to each other.
- "You cannot spread rumours unless you either believe them, are interested in them, or wish they were true." The point to remember here is that the organisers are not expected to spread the whispers themselves. Stories which may appear to one man dreary pornography are the height of wit in other circles. It is our experience that there is practically no limit to the gullibility of some uneducated classes. It is also true that many people like believing the worst and have a passion for spreading alarmist rumours against their own cause. It does not, therefore, follow that a story which appears to be fantastic, obscene or anti-German to an intelligent pro-British agent will not travel through certain channels among pro-German people.
Source: British National Archives, ref. HS 1/332