Fake News, Then and Now

tags: FDR, news media, World War 2

Tracy Campbell is the E. Vernon Smith and Eloise C. Smith Professor of American History at the University of Kentucky and author of America in 1942: The Year of PerilHis previous books include The Gateway Arch: A Biography and Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition, 1742–2004.

In his first fireside chat after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt urged Americans “to reject all rumors,” noting that “these ugly little hints of complete disaster fly thick and fast in wartime.” By summer 1942, FDR knew that executive admonishments had failed to curb the avalanche of false information circulating around the nation, so he signed an executive order creating the Office of War Information.

One of the OWI’s lesser known jobs was the “War Rumor Project,” a unique federal experiment in educating citizens to fight false information. The project relied on public employees such as barbers, bartenders, doctors, hairdressers, and police officers to eavesdrop on their neighbors and customers and report what they heard to their local OWI office. The OWI hoped to combat “the more prevalent” rumors “by striking at their root—ignorance.” This project left a remarkable window into the darker corners of wartime America’s psyche and serves as a guide for readers hoping to combat the avalanche of modern misinformation.

The more than five thousand rumors the OWI catalogued in 1942 fell into three major categories. “Anxiety” rumors were indicative of a nation worried about enemies everywhere: in Seattle, rumors spread that “the Japs are planning to blow up the water mains”; in California, rumors grew of a Japanese plot to put glass into food or to spread typhus by releasing diseased fleas into populated areas. There was supposedly a worker in an Illinois gasmask factory who intentionally poked holes in the masks. Barns in the Midwest were allegedly painted with identifying marks on their roofs to guide enemy bombers.

“Escape” rumors were flights of fancy that reflected people’s longing for an early end to the war. There were stories celebrating Hitler’s death or an early surrender from Japanese forces. These rumors highlighted the nation’s anxious hope that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

The most common category concerned “hate rumors,” which were mostly centered on bigotry toward African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Japanese Americans. People were overheard lamenting that Jews were “running the war” and were avoiding the draft by taking drugs that induced high blood pressure. Rumors about the suspected espionage efforts of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast played a part in Roosevelt’s infamous executive order 9066 and the internment camps.

Read entire article at Yale University Press Blog