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Crowdsourcing Information and Disinformation: The World War II Rumor Project available through By the People

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Staff from the American Folklife Center and By the People have again teamed up for a crowdsourcing campaign. We are asking volunteers to read and transcribe the Center’s World War II Rumor Project. The digital collection is online and the crowdsourcing campaign is now live.

The World War II Rumor project was conceived by U.S. Government’s Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942, a time when people learned about world events from radio, newspapers, and from each other. Understanding and tracking the spread of rumors about the war had value to the OWI in a time of national emergency.

Rumors contain information that is unvarifed and with uncertain origin. Yet the act of passing this information suggests that it must be true. Everyone engages in spreading rumors and the topics span the range of human imagination. As well, the way in which a rumor is spread or embellished often reflects–and to the listener, defines–community values, at times benign and at times quite malicious.

Although the World War II Rumor Project was often described as a “rumor control” effort, the researchers were well aware that control of rumors and misinformation in a free society with a free press is extraordinarily difficult. The project provided an opportunity to study the spread of rumors, to learn about rumors circulating that might have an impact on national security, and to create educational outreach to help head off rumors in the first place.

Illustrative examples abound in the collection. The document below, from Jacksonville, Florida, Aug. 15, 1942, cites two current rumors. The first was overheard from a bus passenger. A submarine had been sunk after attacking an oil tanker and “it” (either the tanker or the submarine) could be seen from the air by plane. A second rumor quotes someone as saying that they were not following government encouragement to purchase war bonds because the bonds might not retain their value after the war. One commonality is found in both rumors: the teller relays important information withheld by official media or government sources.

manuscript page detailing rumors heard in Jacksonville Florida in 1942

To join the crowdsourcing effort, go to the By the People web page. Volunteering is accomplished in a few steps that include online training. Our campaign, “Information and Disinformation: The World War II Rumor Project” is broken into five areas that reflect the collection’s organization.

The collection documents project administration as well as rumors gathered from individuals and from schools. Private individuals were enlisted to write down rumors in their communities and send them to federal agency field representatives. These “correspondents” included dentists, beauty shop operators, policemen, proprietors, and librarians who had access to rumors in their communities. Additionally, teachers collected rumors, jokes, rhymes, and anecdotes about the war from high school and college students. Subjects include Adolf Hitler, Japan, race relations, rationing, and rhymes and stories composed or recorded by students. Be aware that because of potentially offensive and racist language and views, which reflect both their time and circumstances, this transcription campaign may not suitable for all volunteers.

This is the third crowdsourcing collaboration between the American Folklife Center and By the People. At the Library and in the Field: The John and Alan Lomax papers followed closely The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax. As I described in a Folklife Today blogpost titled “ETL: Searching the Lomax family papers through the magic of crowdsourcing,” the crowdsourced data has been ingested into the digital collections, meaning that large portions of the John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers and the Alan Lomax collection are full-text searchable. The same will happen in the current campaign.

I know that people want to contribute to Library collections and crowdsourcing provides that opportunity. Volunteering is fun, engaging, and helpful because the work enhances LC digital collections. As a reference librarian with two decades of experience, I assure potential volunteers that some researcher really does want to learn about rumors of World War II submarine activity off the Florida coast! Your assistance will make a difference.

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