Updated: September 11, 2017

Preventing Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours), Urban Myths

& Organized Misinformation Campaigns

From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

On another page, I list situations where rumors and myth-spreading has interfered with development, aid or relief efforts, including post disaster situations, and government initiatives - including elections.

Based on my experience as a researcher and practitioner, and everything I've read (and I read a LOT on this subject), rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives get their fuel from:

It is that last reason, the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts, that is the hardest to overcome, and the one that organized misinformation campaigns exploit the most - and that's why I have highlighted it in this list. Some research has shown that conspiracy theories, rumors and alternative media sources are shared much, much more often than mainstream sources on Facebook.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:
Also note that simply countering disinformation with credible, truthful information, however diligently, often isn't enough, and you may need to look into advanced strategies. There are university initiatives, media companies and other groups that are developing procedures to more-immediately debunk false news stories, verification mechanisms for investigative journalism, and software tools that create automated systems to immediately identify crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments. This blog by Dan Swislow identifies some of those efforts, as well as the consequences of disinformation campaigns. 

A good place to start in preventing folklore and misinformation from interfering with development or aid initiatives, or addressing such when it happens, is with the acknowledgement that interpersonal sources of information play a HUGE role in communications delivery all over the world, whether in a low-literacy village in a developing country or a large urban area in an emerging economy or a "fully developed" Western-style democracy. Interpersonal communications can both promote AND counter rumors and myth and, therefore, must be kept in mind when launching any communications strategy -- or counter strategy -- regarding a development or aid activity.

Also, a conclusion that can be reached in looking at the various ways myth and misinformation has interfered with development efforts is that the more a development activity is seen as outsiders-coming-in, the more likely it can be derailed by rumors. By contrast, the more development activities or government initiatives are perceived as owned and controlled by the people to be served, the more rumor-proof such activities will be. If messages come from those a community trusts, and via the ways a community communicates naturally, the messages are more likely to be embraced.

The importance of social mobilization as a part of development activities is tremendous in preventing or countering myth as an obstacle to development:

Social Mobilization, as defined by UNICEF, is a broad scale movement to engage people's participation in achieving a specific development goal through self-reliant efforts. It involves all relevant segments of society: decision and policy makers, opinion leaders, bureaucrats and technocrats, professional groups, religious associations, commerce and industry, communities and individuals. It is a planned decentralized process that seeks to facilitate change for development through a range of players engaged in interrelated and complementary efforts. It takes into account the felt needs of the people, embraces the critical principle of community involvement, and seeks to empower individuals and groups for action... Mobilizing the necessary resources, disseminating information tailored to targeted audiences, generating intersectoral support and fostering cross-professional alliances are also part of the process. Social mobilization in total aims at a continuum of activities in a broad strategic framework. The process encompasses dialogue and partnership with a wide spectrum of societal elements.

The ICEC and Global Social Mobilization, October 2000
The International Communication Enhancement Center
Tulane University

Another point to keep in mind is the idea of "motivated reasoning." As described by sociologist Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in an article by LiveScience.com's Jeanna Bryner, "Motivated reasoning is essentially starting with a conclusion you hope to reach and then selectively evaluating evidence in order to reach that conclusion." It means working backward from a firmly-held belief to find supporting facts, rather than letting evidence inform one's views and hoping people go in the right direction. The key is to know what that belief is at the onset, and what is driving the desire to hold on to this belief despite facts.

Eryn Newman at the University of Southern California co-authored a paper that summarizes the latest research on misinformation ("Making The Truth Stick and The Myths Fade: Lessons from Cognitive Psychology"), and in one recent study, Newman presented participants with an article (falsely) saying that a well-known rock singer was dead. The subjects were more likely to believe the claim if the article was presented next to a picture of him, simply because it became easier to bring the singer to mind – boosting the cognitive fluency of the statement. Similarly, writing in an easy-to-read font, or speaking with good enunciation, have been shown to increase cognitive fluency. Newman has shown that something as seemingly inconsequential as the sound of someone’s name can sway us; the easier it is to pronounce, the more likely we are to accept their judgement. More about the paper and similar studies here.

With all this, and more, in mind, below is a list of activities I've seen reported as being effective in preventing and countering rumors and myth from interfering with development or relief activities, or government initiatives, as well as activities I've undertaken myself. However, please note that this is not a comprehensive list (I'm sure there are more out there), nor are all of these communications activities appropriate for every development/aid or government effort:

Also see: How to Handle Online Criticism. How a nonprofit or government organization handles online criticism is going to speak volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. There's no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting -- and the Internet can help.

BioCaster was an ontology-based text mining system for detecting and tracking the distribution of infectious disease outbreaks from linguistic signals on the Web. The system continuously analyzed documents reported from over 1700 RSS feeds, classified them for topical relevance and plots them onto a Google map using geocoded information. Archived versions of the system can be seen by searching for www.biocaster.org on archive.org. The tool no longer exists, but provides an excellent example of how technology could be used - a similar tool could be developed to monitor Twitter, for instance.

In my opinion, the four lessons that all the aforementioned activities reinforce altogether is:

  1. the vital importance of being in-tune with local people and how they feel, knowing exactly what their emotions are around an issue, even if you don't agree with their feelings
  2. the vital importance of exploring why people WANT to believe a narrative that is counter to the facts and being sensitive to that desire,
  3. that those behind a development or aid effort must work to be perceived as coming from a place of honesty, sincerity and respect for local people, and
  4. that the message you want a community or region to embrace must be owned and delivered primarily by local people themselves.

Also, the above suggestions are no substitution for reading in-depth about rumor and myth interfering with development efforts, and reading studies and reports about the psychology around public health campaigns and the like. Recommendations for further reading will be provided as I find such!

Sources and recommendations for more information:
(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google, or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL into Archive.org)

(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google, or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL into Archive.org)

Also see:

A website that verifies or dispels some of the Internet’s most pervasive rumors about ANY subject: Emergent.info, founded by researcher Craig Silverman of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. "It presents real rumors and real data about them in a visual format that hopefully helps communicate how a given claim is evolving, and whether media reports confirm, deny or merely report the claim. After enough evidence emerges one way or another, we mark the claim as either true or false."

Verification Handbook: A Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage "In a crisis situation, social networks are overloaded with situational updates, calls for relief, reports of new developments, and rescue information. Reporting the right information is often critical in shaping responses from the public and relief workers; it can literally be a matter of life or death." Authored by journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC, Digital First Media, and other verification experts, this is a resource for journalists and aid providers that offers tools, techniques, and step-by-step guidelines for how to deal with user-generated content (UGC) during emergencies. Noting that rumours and misinformation can cause people to invent and repeat questionable information in emergency situations due to uncertainty and anxiety - now amplified due to new technology like social media - the resource provides best practice advice on how to verify and use information provided by the crowd, as well as actionable advice to facilitate disaster preparedness in newsrooms. Case studies are included; for example: "Separating Rumor From Fact in a Nigerian Conflict Zone".

Towards Polio Communication Indicators: A Discussion Document, February 2008 from The Communication Initiative (scroll down the page to download the document; the summary doesn't really capture the important points of this document, IMO).

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. This is a summary of various research literature, offering practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of misinformation. The Handbook will be available as a free, downloadable PDF at the end of its 6-part blog series (which is still underway as of November 2011).

Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate. This is actually a web page for competitive debaters. But its explanation of logical fallacies is the best I've found anywhere, and those ways of arguing a point are something public health educators and other communicators should understand!

WikiWash, a more attractive interface to the revision history feature of Wikipedia. News events are often recorded quite quickly in Wikipedia articles, but these rapid edits can be a source of bias or spin if not scrutinized. WikiWash allows easy WYSIWIG browsing of recent edits to any article to make such scrutiny easier.

Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches by Nicholas DiFonzo. The contributing authors "investigate how rumours start and spread, the accuracy of different types of rumour, and how rumours can be controlled, particularly given their propagation across media outlets and within organisations." I confess I haven't read this, but based on what is summarized online, I can't imagine it isn't a good resource for further exploring this issue.

"Rumors and Realities: Making Sense of HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Narratives and Contemporary Legends". By Jacob Heller. American Journal of Public Health: January 2015, Vol. 105, No. 1, pp. e43-e50. I confess I haven't read this, as it is behind a pay wall, but the abstract indicates it is a good resource for further exploring this issue.

Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend (Social Problems and Social Issues), a book edited by by Chip Heath, Veronique Campion-Vincent, and Gary A. Fin, includes this chapter: "How Rumor Begets Rumor: Collective Memory, Ethnic Conflict, and Reproductive Rumors in Cameroon." Again, I confess I haven't read this, but based on what is summarized online, I can't imagine it isn't a good resource for further exploring this issue.

Lesson plan about recognizing fake news. It's from KQED, a public radio and TV station in the San Francisco, California area. "Students will analyze the problems and potential consequences associated with the spread of fake news." and "Students will identify and evaluate ways to avoid fake news in social and academic settings. "

Doctors have decades of experience fighting “fake news.” Here’s how they win. Some lessons from the health community’s long battle with misinformation. Terrific, very practical advice, with examples of where it's worked. 

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.

Even more reading

Wikipedia actually has some good pages that provide an overview of these and related subjects:

Submit your examples to me

I'm not interested in just urban legends but, specifically misinformation that interferes with relief or development efforts, or government initiatives, including after disasters or conflict. 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.

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