The Explosive Effects of Rumors in Syria and Insurgencies Around the World
Abstract: Frequently dismissed as trivial or unimportant because untrue, rumors are a potent in the information war that characterizes contemporary conflicts, and they participate in significant ways in the struggle for the consent of the governed. As narrative forms, rumors are suitable to a wide range of political expression, from citizens, insurgents, and governments alike. The authors make a compelling argument for understanding rumors in these contexts as "narrative IEDs," low-cost, low-tech weapons that can successfully counter elaborate and expansive government initiatives of outreach campaigns or strategic communication efforts. While not exactly the same as the advanced technological systems or Improvised Explosive Devices to which they are metaphorically related, narrative IEDs nevertheless operate as weapons that can aid the extremist or insurgent cause. Building from a book length study, this article explores how rumors fit into and extend narrative systems and ideologies, particularly in the context of insurgency, civil unrest and terrorism/counter-terrorism; and the article provides four basic rules to help strategic communicators, diplomats, planners and development personnel deal with the deleterious effects of rumors.
Strategic communicators often dismiss rumors as untrue or as gossip and thus trivial. Yet research shows that rumors can have serious social, economic and political consequences. Rumors about President Obama’s birthplace, despite their falsity, have armed his political foes and distracted attention from his governance. Rumors that Jews or the Bush Administration were behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center extend and reinforce troubling stereotypes and conspiracy theories. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumors magnify the use of violence and ideology that shapes the allegiance of the contested population—those caught between supporting the host government and coalition forces on the one hand and the insurgency or Taliban on the other. Recognizing the importance of rumors, especially their function in periods of civic unrest, and understanding their nature and spread as a particular kind of story phenomena are the subjects of our recent book Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Influence (Rutgers University Press, 2012).
Rumors form a particular threat during emerging and ongoing insurgencies, and we are seeing this played out in Syria today, where rumors are rocking the embattled regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Al-Assad’s brother’s legs were blown off by a recent rebel attack and military deputy chief of staff Asef Shawkat was poisoned strike at the heart of Assad family security. Al-Assad’s wife fled to Russia and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa defected to Jordan both suggest a crumbling regime amidst a socio-political crisis. At the same time, rumors abound about the insurgency. The rebels are funded and supported by al-Qaeda and Chechens are fighting side-by-side with the rebels feed into regional and global fears of terrorism, and also position the rebels as antagonists in the broad foreign policy narratives of both the United States and Russia.
As with all rumors, these rumors feed on small bits of information and events, fill in gaps of information and integrate with the larger narrative landscape—the complex array of stories prevalent within a specific social, economic, political and mediated environment. For example, the successful rebel attack on July 19, 2012 that killed two Syrian defense ministers and other top officials created plausibility for rumors of Maher Al-Assad’s injuries, and the lack of public sightings of Shawkat and al-Sharaa created a gap in information that the rumors filled. (Reports have confirmed Shawkat died in the July blast, not in May by poison as the rumors claimed.) Rumors of foreign fighters, whether al-Qaeda or Chechen, integrate with the global narrative system of stories of fighters pouring into Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda fighters honing their skills supporting the Chechen insurgency, thereby leveraging regional narratives stretching from Iran to Lebanon to Israel.
In the context of an insurgency, rumors are 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. This is because they are ad hoc and difficult to detect by the diplomat, analyst, or combatant until they explode, disrupting outreach, communication and influence campaigns. Of course, many governments also plant narrative IEDs in the form of whisper campaigns, and these also leverage bits and pieces of prevailing stories. Yet regardless of the source of a rumor, once let loose these narrative IEDs can become volatile and unpredictable. Understanding the following four basic rules governing the nature and function rumors can help strategic communicators deal with this lethal threat.
Rule 1: Truth and Falsity Do Not Matter
When it comes to the relationship between rumors and insurgencies, the first rule is that facts do not matter—just ask President Obama. People caught in an information vacuum often digest rumors as news. These “news” stories spread in multiple directions and in various media and draw upon prevailing stories. During the build-up to the Iraq war, the story heard around the world was that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. To support this story, U.S. government officials and journalists cited an array of “facts.” Other government officials and journalists contested the story with their own battery of “facts.” As we now know, the naysayers were correct. Yet in the post 9/11 environment, coupled with Hussein’s previous use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Northern Iraq, the rumor that Iraq has stockpiles of WMD that could lead to a mushroom cloud appearing over the U.S. prevailed. What is fascinating about this whisper campaign is that Saddam Hussein also spread it in an effort to intimidate Iran. Even today, long after the fruitless search for WMD during the occupation of Iraq, the story that Hussein shipped his WMD to Syria remains credible among a large number of Americans, according to a 2012 poll.
Rule 2: Story Matters
Why do stories matter? Storytelling is one of the foremost methods of organizing information and making sense of the world around us. While the psychological elements (fear, anxiety, dread, wish, etc.) are important, it is the narrative elements—how rumors operate as stories and within broader systems of stories—that illuminate their potency, significance and potential consequence far more. Stories take characters, events, actions and settings and make sense of them through cause and effect. For example, the July 19 attack (event) in Syria (setting), subsequent public absence of Maher Al-Assad and al-Sharaa (characters), coalesced into explanatory tales of death and defection. Al-Sharaa’s defection made sense as the effect of a crumbling regime and collapse of support for Basher Al-Assad. Participating in a broader system of stories centered on the Syrian conflict, they become predictive or wish-fulfilling (for the rebels) or dread-inducing (for regime supporters), which are common functions of rumors. Furthermore, seeing rumors through a narrative lens also points towards methods of countering them by organizations negatively impacted by rumors. In fact, the recent rumor that Al-Assad released Al-Qaeda strategist Abu Musab Al-Suri dilutes the narrative clarity of rumors that the rebels are working with Al-Qaeda.
Rule 3: Rumor Mosaics Signal an Emerging Threat
While some of the anti-Assad rumors have been tempered by public sightings of their subjects, they nevertheless constitute a rumor mosaic. A rumor mosaic is a cluster of otherwise distinct rumors that collaboratively reinforce a particular narrative. The mosaic of Assad regime collapse and defection presents a picture of a vulnerable government struggling to maintain internal unity and personal security. This narrative fits the desired worldview of the rebels and these “micro-stories” work together within a broader narrative system. In this case, the narrative system includes other stories (of rebel victories for example) and charts a narrative trajectory of the demise of the Syrian regime: rebel attacks wound and kill key personnel; family members flee; other leaders defect. This particular narrative resolves with Assad’s defeat. Regardless of whether these rumors are actually true (and some have been proven false), it is not the facts that matter, but rather the believability of the cluster of interconnected rumors forged by their integration with the narrative landscape.
Rule 4: Rapid Transmediation Signals an Imminent Threat
The spread of rumors, whether in the U.S., Iraq, Syria or most anywhere else, is facilitated by transmediation, a process involving the appropriation, reconfiguration and retransmission of messages across different media platforms—frequently but not exclusively online. Each change of medium involves both alteration of form and, sometimes subtly, meaning. In particular, one rumor meme that exhibits this phenomenon of transmediation is the rumor of Asma Al-Assad’s departure for the safer haven of Russia. Reports of her evacuation first circulated on Twitter, and then in mainstream newspapers. Jumping from text to image, political cartoons of the posh Asma running from a smoking Damascus and using Syrian flag draped coffins as stepping-stones joined the rumor of her exit with previous stories of extravagant shopping during times of crisis. This exit rumor is thus believable as it exhibits narrative fidelity—it rings true—in the context of the rumor environment and narrative landscape concerning the Assad regime. Yet despite the subtle changes in form and meaning, the underlying story remains intact as the rumors cluster into a mosaic that extends the narrative that the Assad family cares little for the Syrian people and the regime is at risk.
Media environments in places such as pre-conflict Syria tend to foster skepticism since their citizens are seldom exposed to news critical of the government. This skepticism facilitates an information vacuum in which rumors fester and spread through underground channels. Rumors then explode in chaotic environments like war-torn Syria, becoming important sources of news for the population, and can cause civilians to support or reject an existing regime, an insurgency, or even an outside actor. Indeed, despite the fact that rumors are often (though not always) comprised of lies and half-truths, if the stories seem credible or “ring true” they can seriously impact political, economic and governmental action. An example from Iraq illustrates this principle succinctly.
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 conspiratorial punch and narrative elements of this rumor appealed to imagination and fear, especially during a time of crisis when official news sources were silent or untrustworthy. The rumor both exhibited consistency with a long history of stories of foreign invaders pillaging Iraqi resources (Crusaders, Mongols, et al.) and provided an explanation for the increase of dying cattle. The rumor’s power came from its congruence with established stories of exploitation, and the rumor effectively disrupted the outreach campaign.
Rumors are the reality of the citizens who believe them. In conflicts from Iraq to Indonesia to Singapore – as well as in Syria or other flashpoints—those who ignore rumors and their potential effects do so at the peril of their strategic communication interests. To be sure, detrimental rumors, as narrative IEDs, are not insurmountable. Just as new technology allows for defense against their explosive cousins, understanding a culture’s narrative and media landscape, where rumors form and cluster, allows for defenses against these weapons of the weak and the strong. Strategic communicators need to pay attention to them, track their flow and understand their narratological charge in order assess their impact and develop appropriate countermeasures. And while that is certainly easier said than done, it is certainly possible.
 In a 2012 poll, 63 percent of Republicans, 27 percent of independents, and 15 percent of Democrats believe that Iraq had WMDs when the US invaded in 2003. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/21/iraq-wmd-poll-clueless-vast-majority-republicans_n_1616012.html.