Updated November 11, 2011
Examples of Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) and Urban Myths
Interfering with Development and Aid/Relief Efforts
This is a list of examples I've gathered on how folklore, rumors (or rumours) and urban myths / urban legends have interfered with relief and development activities and government initiatives -- even bringing such to a grinding halt.
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- CNN reported in a story from March 2008 about how census workers in Liberia were chalking numbers on every house, lean-to, hut and shack, and these census preparations had given birth to rumors among many Liberians: that its part of a military recruitment drive or that it's in preparation for new taxes. Census questions also caused misconceptions: if a census worker asks if a family has a TV or if the children are in school in order to be able to classify the family's economic situation, the family may hide the TV and say their kids are not in school when in fact they are, thinking the government or aid agency will buy them a TV or pay their school fees if they say no. Liberia used a number of activities, from a pop song to billboards, to educate the population and dispel these myths.
- In 2003, a northern Islamic state in Nigeria declared a boycott of a mass polio vaccination program, calling it a U.S. plot to spread AIDS and infertility among Muslims. Such door-to-door drives to inoculate millions of children are critical to stemming a growing polio outbreak spreading. Nigerian officials and aid workers resolved most of the controversy by undertaking a variety of anti-rumor campaigns over two years, including sending Islamic religious leaders to observe a battery of tests on the vaccines in South Africa and India. But the myth continues in other countries: Time magazine quotes Dr. Hamid Jafari of the WHO, in a September 2006 article, as saying that one reason that polio is making a comeback in India is that a small but vocal group of fundamentalist Muslim clerics are spreading the false rumor that polio vaccinations are used by the West to sterilize Muslims. In some areas of India, fatwas have been issued against the vaccine, prompting some Muslim parents to stop health workers from inoculating their children.
- According to a March 24, 2006 article in the Associated Press, nearly a million census officials are trying to count heads in Northern Africa's most populous nation for the first time in 15 years, but are facing a number of obstacles relating to folklore and local tradition: it's considered bad luck to ask a Yoruba how many children the family has, or a herdsman about his cows or camels. In the mainly Muslim north, men in religious households will not allow women alone to answer the door to male census workers, meaning the women will not be counted. In a bid to diffuse tensions, the government decided not to ask people their religion.
- There are many accounts that in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other African countries, men have raped virgin girls and even baby girls, believing that sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS (UNICEF commented on this in August 2006, specifically regarding Zimbabwe). It is a pervasive urban myth that is proving very, very difficult to eradicate.
- Rhinos are threatened with extinction in South Africa and elsewhere to meet the demand by the newly moneyed consumers of China and Vietnam for a bogus cancer cure. Hunters are also driving tigers to extinction for the same belief in medical myths in Asia.
- In a Radio Australia interview, Kym Smithies of the UNDP mission in East Timor said that because there is no local media operating in the country, and no reliable communications infrastructure, rumours run freely, sometimes leading to violence in and around camps for internally-displaced people. "The people are really not getting access to information. You walk around the camps and you see a few people with their little transistor radios trying desperately to get some news. So what we're working on with UNDP and UNICEF is creating a system that will allow for immediate information, dissemination of both news and humanitarian assistance efforts, so that people know that food is going to keep coming to them, that they don't panic. And people panic when they don't have information, that's when you get rioting or when you get looting and fear-driven crime."
- A colleague referred me to his conversation with a senior UN official in east Africa who, when asked about HIV and the gay community there said "but there are no gay Africans".
- Rumors of foreigners coming to steal children to sell them to rich Westerns, to sell their organs, to use them in Satanic rituals or to sexually abuse them has lead to attacks on foreigners in Africa and Latin America. For instance, a rumor that kidnappers were stealing children to use their hearts in satanic rituals motivated a mob that killed a Japanese tourist and a Guatemalan bus driver in a northwestern village in Guatemala, according to a news article in Reuters on May 4, 2000 by Ibon Villelabeitia. A group of Japanese tourists were shopping and taking pictures in the town's colorful market when they were attacked by angry villagers. In October 2007, a group of aid workers, most of them volunteers, were charged with attempting to kidnap a large group of children, with government officials disputing their claim that the children were war orphans and also asserting that the children would be used for organ harvesting and sold to pedophile rings. It must be noted that there is absolutely no evidence that any children anywhere have been kidnapped in order to sell their organs or to use them in any ritual, Satanic or otherwise. Such rumors are based on fears about both organ transplantation and international adoptions, as well as distrust of Westerners.
- Witchcraft and belief in traditional but unsafe tribal practices has been blamed for deaths in the developing world, including in 2007 in Chad refugee camps. At that time, UNHCR reported that refugees from war-torn Central African Republic (CAR) who are living in camps in Chad attacked women refugees they accused of using witchcraft to kill children. Some ill refugees had gone exclusively to the traditional healers in the camps for treatment, and if they succumbed to their illnesses it was often explained as witchcraft. As a result, people had stopped drinking the well water and started getting their water from the swamps and rivers around the camp, creating huge health problems. Seven awareness sessions were organized by UNHCR and its partners to try to end the "vicious circle" that had refugees turning away from modern medicine and sanitary health practices. The sessions did not explore the existence of witches or witchcraft, but instead focused on health, sanitation, community cohesion and the danger of accusing people without evidence.
- The American Dental Association (ADA), World Health Organization (WHO), and many other health organizations recommend fluoridation of municipal water supplies. Advocates of water fluoridation say this is similar to fortifying salt with iodine, milk with vitamin D and orange juice with vitamin C. They say it is an effective way to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health over a lifetime, for both children and adults. If was first introduced in the USA in the late 1940s, but early efforts were dogged by an urban legend declaring it to be a communist conspiracy (this was satirized in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). Another urban legend says that fluoride is an industrial waste product, and that fluoridation of municipal water supplies is a way to get rid of such.
- A March 25, 2009 article in AFP described efforts by the Egyptian health and interior ministries to quell a rumor that a mobile phone text message was spreading around the country and killing those who received it. (When I was in Afghanistan, this same rumor occurred).
- From Fear and Stigma: An Exploratory Study of AIDS Patient Narratives in China by Jing Jun, Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University: "When I stepped out of the clinic in the first village I visited, I was surrounded by a group of local villagers who thought I was a doctor or a government official. A woman in her early 40s asked me if drinking water from a well she shared using with her neighbors could cause her and her children to be infected with HIV. In the second village I visited, I learned from the village chief that his community had lost a major agricultural business. His village used to produce and sell a great quantity of ginger every year. Now longtime wholesale purchasers of his village's ginger stopped sending orders, fearing that the ginger grown in his village contained HIV."
- A development worker wrote to me with his "favorite" examples:
- Communities mixing untreated water with the clean water provided by development agencies because 'it tastes better'. "A common phenomenon, but encountered again recently in Somalia."
- "The (again) fairly widespread belief that certain diseases are treatable by modern medicine, but others are only amenable to traditional medicine." He noted that Save the Children UK did some research on this in Zanzibar about 15 years ago, and that it was published (still looking for this). "In that case mothers erroneously thought that diarrhea was not a disease that western biomedicine could cure."
- An emergency response team member with a major relief agency wrote to say that the Pan American Journal of Health wrote an article to dispel the myth that dead bodies pose a risk of epidemic and that outlines what risks do exist for those who need to handle bodies.
- Even something as benign as a theater production in support of a development goal can lead to hostilities or even violence, as cited in three examples in Theatre and Empowerment: Community Drama on the World Stage: There is an account regarding a youth theater group's visit to a remote village in India, when "the sudden appearance of a handful of English-speaking youth initially created an atmosphere of suspicion in the village. Some thought we were ultra-left extremists, some thought we were foreign spies; others wondered if we were Christian missionaries subtly trying to convert them.". This point is further underscored in the tragic consequences of one community encounter by the Victory Sonqoba Theatre Company (VSTC), founded by Bongani Linda, in South Africa. "When Linda drove his company into KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] for a performance, bullets were shot into their vehicle, killing three of the actors." A TfD activity organized in Dhaka by Save the Children and other local institutions was initially well-received, with local women and girls hoping to create pieces regarding issues of particular concern to them, such as their resentment of early marriage. But later, "the people in the independent Bangladesh NGOs who were hosting our workshop received threats of violence from some of the rich young men in powerful village families. They accused us of undermining the 'cultural values of Bangladesh'."
- As of March 2006, according to a BBC report, the rumor mill was rampant in Iraq: the lack of electricity is blamed not on American incompetence, but Americans wanting to punish Iraqis, and many Iraqis believe that American soldiers wear air-conditioned clothing and have x-ray vision glasses to see through women's clothes.
- According to a reporter on CNN International on November 30, 2007, rumors distributed via text messaging, email and web-based message boards lead to a mob demanding the death of a British female teacher for insulting Islam. The rumors -- all unfounded -- say that the teacher did more than ask her class of seven-year-olds to come up with a name for the class mascot, a teddy bear, as part of a school project, and say she engaged in various activities that insulted the religion and lead to "the pollution of children's mentality."
- I worked in Afghanistan for six months, and I still receive emails from Afghan friends there. One of them forwards emails to several people, including me, regarding warnings or calls for protests, and all of them have been urban legends -- not one has been true. In August 2009, he sent me this:
In the business area of MID TOWN MAN HATTAN in New York a new BAR is opened in the name of APPLE MECCA which is familiar to KAABA MAKKAH. This bar will be used for supply of Wine and Drinks. The Muslims of New York are pressurizing Government of USA not open this BAR.
Accompanying this myth is a purported photo of the "bar" -- here's an example. It wasn't true, and the picture is not of anything real. The photo is a doctored image of the Apple Computer store on Fifth Avenue in New York City (which, indeed, has a bar -- a genius bar -- where knowledge, rather than wine and beer, is served). It is a clear block, not a black box, and is not at all a rendering of the holy Ka'ba. But many people forward the message via their phones or computers to all their friends and relatives, and they not only keep the lie alive, they also generate hatred and misunderstanding by Muslims against the West.
- In January 2010, CNN ran a story of how Twitter users spread at least a few myths regarding helping Haiti. One was a myth that several airlines were flying any USA doctors and nurses who wanted to help in Haiti free of charge. Twitter users also circulated a rumor that UPS would ship for free any package under 50 lbs. to Haiti. Neither was true.
- In January 2010, in an outstanding blog entry, "The Anatomy of Multi-Directional Propaganda", Jillian York traces an insidious myth that Israelis are stealing organs in Haiti (they are not). The myth is being spread via Twitter, YouTube and traditional media. York says, "Yet another instance of Twitter spreading misinformation very very quickly... and people believing anything they read in a 140 character sound byte."
- Also in January 2010 was The Ghanaian Earthquake Hoax," as Ethan Zuckerman calls it: Many Ghanaians spent a Sunday night sleeping outside, for fear that a major earthquake would hit Accra. A rumor of an impending Earthquake had spread through cell phone text messages and blogs, and Zuckerman says "it's like a textbook example of how bad information spreads and how hard it can be to contain." Zuckerman noted that radio stations neither confirmed nor denied the rumors in the early morning hours. He said that, according to BBC’s David Amanour, PeaceFM – one of Accra’s radio stations – began calling the phone messages a hoax early in the morning, helping calm people’s fears. "Unfortunately, by the time government ministers began taking to the airwaves to calm people, thousands – perhaps millions – had left their homes." He quotes this person who was on the scene: "Everyone was just passing on the story they heard via cellphone from ‘a friend’ or ‘my family.’"
- More regarding Haiti in January 2010: Haitian mothers who have not felt in good physical or mental health since the earthquake worry that they will pass their "bad health" to their baby, said Saiko Chiba, a member of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) country support team. When one mother in a Haitian hospital was asked whether she would breastfeed her baby, she shook her head, saying "I am sad. I cannot breastfeed. I will not give her my milk for another six months." From IRIN news.
- Through the summer of 2009 in the USA, a number of bizarre myths were promoted by right-wing politicians, insurance lobbyists and various pundits via public meetings, radio programs and online tools to defeat efforts to reform health care coverage in the USA. Myths included: government "death panels" would decide who would live and who would be allowed to die among those who needed expensive health care (people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, the elderly, etc.), government officials would make health care decisions for individuals, the current government-run Medicare program would be abolished, and private health care options would be abolished. None are true, yet millions of Americans believe they are.
- The H1Ni virus outbreak in the USA in 2009 lead to outlandish-yet-widely-believed rumors passed around via political meetings and email, such as one rumor that said the state of Oklahoma had passed a law passed in Oklahoma mandating all citizens to get the H1N1 Vaccination, that would send all those who refused to special camps far from population centers, and that all those receiving the show would have to wear a permanent metal bracelet.
- The USA remains plagued by falsehoods regarding childhood vaccinations, with even some nonprofits and some celebrities advocating via the media and online that parents not inoculate their children against diseases that used to kill millions of kids (before regular vaccinations). Discover Magazine and Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" blog have frequently highlighted these misinformation campaigns.
I blog about examples as well:
I'm not interested in just urban legends but, specifically misinformation that interferes with relief or development efforts, or government initiatives. And most especially, I'm interested in ways that such misinformation has been countered successfully. If you have related information or examples, please contact me.
Please see these recommendations on Preventing Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) and Urban Myths From Interfering with Development and Aid/Relief Efforts, and Government Initiatives.
What I'm also wondering: are their any efforts in developing and transitional countries similar to the myth-busting Straight Dope column by Cecil Adams in the USA? Or truthorfiction.com? Or hoax-slayer.com? Or MythBusters? If you know of such, please contact me.
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