The Sunday Edition

What rumours reveal about our deepest hopes and fears

We live in the age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” but rumours have been with us forever.
British Anti-rumour posters from WWII. (The National Archives, United Kingdom)
Listen26:44

[Originally published on April 8, 2018]

Phrases like "alternative facts," "fake news" and "post-truth" are relatively modern, but rumours have been with us forever.

Historian Jo Fox says that although rumours can have a destabilizing effect and are sometimes shared maliciously, they also serve an important psychological function and should not be censored.

Fox is the director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and specializes in the history of propaganda and psychological warfare. She is currently working on a project about rumours during the Second World War.

Rumours reveal a much deeper psychology. They tend to reveal our deeper hopes and fears.- Jo Fox

"I came to the study of rumour because I was profoundly dissatisfied by traditional ways of ascertaining how the public felt about issues," she says.

"We normally, as historians, use public opinion polls or public opinion sources ... but those sources only really tell us what the public is willing to say out loud to another person, what they're publicly able to admit. Rumours reveal a much deeper psychology. They tend to reveal our deeper hopes and fears."

Thanks to technology, rumours can now travel within a matter of seconds, says Jo Fox, director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)
During the Second World War, Fox says British residents often used rumours to test whether or not they should be worried about something.

"It would have been deeply unpatriotic to admit that you were really concerned about air raids ... but you could ask whether you were next in line. 'Have you heard a rumour that we are about to be bombed? Have you heard that too? Should we be doing something?'" she says.

"What rumours do, both [in WWII] and now, is act as a safety valve. Sharing a rumour can help alleviate some of the stress and tension."

However, it can be difficult to tell the difference between rumours created to alleviate anxiety, and those that have been deliberately planted.

"If you take the example of the Second World War, you have the psychological warriors who are doing that deliberately, but most people are sharing rumours completely unconsciously," says Fox.

"The difference now is that [a rumour] can move very, very fast and it can take on a life of its own in a way that perhaps we haven't seen in the past… You've only got to go on social media to see that rumours are in absolute circulation. Whereas normally rumours would have been passed mouth-to-mouth, now they can travel within a matter of seconds," she says.

Whereas normally rumours would have been passed mouth-to-mouth, now they can travel within a matter of seconds.- Jo Fox

Britain set up Anti-Lie Bureaus during the Second World War and even tried to prosecute rumour-mongers — but Fox says governments today should be aware that attempts to crack down on misinformation often exacerbate the problem and create more distrust.

"The first thing not to do, I think, is to attempt to censor it," says Fox. "Quite a lot of governments are now looking for quick-fix solutions to what is a deep-seated cultural and psychological human issue."

Instead, Fox says citizens need to be more conscious of how they share information, especially online.

"Probably more than ever, we are going to have to think very, very hard about how we as individuals, as citizens, fit into that media environment," says Fox. "We can be propagandists, if we so wish."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.


For more information on misinformation during the Second World War, and the infamous Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, click here.

William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) lies in an ambulance under armed guard before being taken from British 2nd Army Headquarters to hospital. He had been shot in the thigh at the time of his arrest. He was hanged for treason on Jan. 3, 1946. (Imperial War Museum)