The Buzz

Narrative Landmines and America Abroad

Small Wars Journal has a thoughtful article by a cluster of communications academics on the role of rumors in civil unrest. They brand rumors “narrative landmines” or “narrative IEDs”: “Like their kinetic cousins, they are the preferred communication weapon of the insurgent because they can be constructed of locally available stories and hidden in the landscape until detonation.” The explosion of a narrative IED can have real consequences:

In 2005, U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq began an outreach campaign inoculating cattle, trying to prevent significant losses in the face of drought and disease. What began as an economic stability program quickly became a problem when rumors spread that the U.S. Army veterinarians were poisoning the cattle in order to starve the Iraqi people. . . . the rumor effectively disrupted the outreach campaign.

The authors suggest that the most powerful rumors fit into “rumor mosaics,” collections of stories that together suggest a narrative. When a narrative and its mosaic connect well with the people’s experiences, hopes and fears, they are more likely to be believed. (In the case of the cattle inoculation program, Iraqis had seen more cattle dying than usual, and also saw their history as full of foreign depredation; these fed the poisoning rumor.) The people respond accordingly—“Rumors are the reality of the citizens who believe them.” Those who wish the people to believe a particular narrative—say, an occupation force or a government—must accordingly pay close attention to rumors rather than ignoring them.

The mosaic or narrative model of rumor invites a new line of questioning. Are certain populations especially ready to believe certain sorts of rumors—and especially willing to act on them? Are certain sorts of rumors incredibly powerful in certain cultures? In the greater Middle East, a few types of rumors have been behind significant historical incidents. The Hebron massacre of 1929, in which nearly seventy Jews—men, women and children—were brutally murdered, began after rumors of anti-Islamic acts and anti-Arab violence by Jews in Jerusalem. In some of the rumors, the violence was tolerated or even aided by the British occupation force. Tall tales of Jewish malfeasance and great-power complicity have been a feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since.

Rumors also often portray religious minorities and outsiders as eager to offend Muslim sensibilities (as with inflated versions of the Danish Muhammad cartoons) and make off with their women. U.S. troops in Iraq battled tales that their night-vision goggles allowed them to see through women’s clothing. A 2011 paroxysm of anti-Coptic violence in Egypt was touched off by rumors that a Coptic woman had converted to Islam and was being held prisoner in a church; the infamous 1829 lynching of the Russian ambassador to Persia followed his granting refuge to a trio of women escaped from prominent harems.

The latter case, as with Hebron, included another common feature of such rumors: malicious great-power interference. The U.S. embassy in Pakistan was burned down in 1979 after a rumor spread that the United States was behind a Saudi cult’s seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The great powers frequently are seen as orchestrating a genocidal plot to reduce Muslim populations, often with the aid of modern medicine. The cattle-killing inoculation in Iraq is but one example; Pakistan and Nigeria have long had talk that polio vaccinations actually make women sterile and men impotent.

Taken together, it appears that a significant portion of the people of the greater Middle East (and some parts of the rest of the Islamic world) do not need much inducement to believe that the West is doing dastardly deeds against them. It’s quite likely, of course, that such rumors are sometimes fanned by cynics who know them to be false but use them as a tool to undermine Western involvement. It’s also true that many find the rumors ridiculous, those who believe them foolish, and their actions shameful. But none of this changes the fact that so many people find the rumors credible. The region’s rumor mosaics and narrative structures readily accept the notion that Washington is up to no good. While the United States might enjoy good relations with a number of the Middle East’s governments, good relations with its peoples would require us to navigate a narrative minefield. That minefield may mark the boundary of sustainable U.S. involvement.