What Can Primary Sources Tell Us about Battling Misinformation?

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

In the January/February 2022 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features primary sources from the World War II Rumor Project, along with strategies to help students analyze these documents to reflect on the topic of misinformation.

The World War II Rumor Project collection includes documents complied by the Office of War Information (OWI), established in 1942 by executive order to develop a coordinated governmental war information program. As part of its mission, OWI sought to track misinformation that could compromise U.S. war efforts. Citizens were enlisted from American communities to document and report rumors they had heard. No names were collected in the process; instead, government officials would analyze the content of the rumors, so they could counter them with educational campaigns delivered through various media.

Diagrams of Rumor and Rumor Control, p. 1

The article suggests beginning with pages 1 and 24 from Diagrams of Rumor and Rumor Control, which illustrate one view of how misinformation emerged and spread in the 1940s. Encourage your students to examine these diagrams and speculate about what the diagrams might say about how government officials viewed the task of countering misinformation. Some students might note that while the subject header on page one reads: “The Pattern of Propoganda,” several different types of information are actually referenced, including: “lies,” “propaganda of distortion issued by the enemy,” and “unauthorized news, comments, editorials, opinions, and conflicting opinions.” Since “editorials” and “conflicting opinions” are not always the same as “lies” or “propaganda of distortion,” students might reflect on the challenges of combating misinformation in a free society.

Detail from Rumor Control Project Documents – various editions

Next, invite students to read page one of Rumor Control Project Documents- various editions, making note of how 1940s government officials proposed to combat rumors once identified. Some students might point to the inherent dangers of the task: “Unskilled efforts at ‘rumor-busting’ can cause much more harm by giving rumors publicity they might not otherwise obtain. Moreover, ineffective refutations can fix rumors more firmly and powerfully in the minds of those exposed to them. Injudicious treatment of rumors may increase public anxiety to the point where more of them spring up because of the anxiety created.” Others might point to trade-offs between creating educational campaigns and freedom of the press: “Rumor-control projects will inevitably come into close relations with newspapers and magazines…in all such cases, the direction and responsibility for what goes into print must rest with the project directors, and not with the magazine and newspaper editors.”

Analyzing these and other documents from the World War II Rumor Project collection can be an interesting way for students to begin thinking about how misinformation has been studied and combated during key moments in U.S. history. It can also serve as a springboard for thinking about rumors and misinformation surrounding them today. Where does misinformation come from? And once identified, what is an appropriate response?

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