Small Wars Journal

Narrative Landmines

Thu, 03/21/2013 - 3:30am

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

[1] 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.



About the Author(s)

Scott W. Ruston is an Assistant Research Professor with Arizona State University’s Center for Strategic Communication, where he specializes in narrative theory and media studies. He received his PhD in Critical Studies from USC, and leverages this media studies to address real world problems of strategic communication intersecting media, narrative/counter-narrative and terrorism.

Chris Lundry is Assistant Research Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Communication at Arizona State University and Chair of the Southeast Asia Council. He is currently housed in the Center for Strategic Communication, where he is the group's Southeast Asia expert. His past work has centered on violence, rebellion and separatism in Indonesia. 

Pauline Hope Cheong, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication Technologies and Culture at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. She is the author of more than 50 articles, and is lead editor of Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, and Futures.

Daniel Bernardi is Chair and Professor of Cinema and Director of of the Documentary Film Institute at San Francisco State University.  He is the author of several books on race and culture in American media, as well as a Veteran of the Iraq War (2009-10).


Chris Lundry

Tue, 03/26/2013 - 2:10pm

Dear Hubba,

Thanks for writing. We agree that the definition of narrative is important, and we do disagree with how some others define and use the term. If you have questions about how we define and operationalize narrative, I would direct you to some of our other work (rather than writing a lengthy explanation as a response). Our blog, COMOPS Journal, has several posts that would be relevant, including this recent one by Steve Corman explaining the difference between story and narrative:…. Our recent books -- with lengthier sections on defining and operationalizing narrative -- are also listed on the COMOPS site. Thanks for writing.

Chris Lundry

Ned McDonnell III

Wed, 03/27/2013 - 1:36am

In reply to by Chris Lundry


Thank you for your gracious, thoughtful response. Your conclusion about lining up the local elites, etc. played out like clock-work in Afghanistan in another situation. My Army colleagues were excited and button-holed me one afternoon with a video on a camera of a large sink-hole. They asked me for help.

After my usual USAIDisclaimer that I had no money (blah-blah-blah), I said I would try to do something. Fortunately, the local engineer for Mercy Corps -- the USAID implementing partner for a community development program -- was an Afghan and knew what to do. We inspected the site and the engineer agreed that this was a hazard.

So, the engineer called a shura with the neighborhood elders and got the okay to proceed. The next morning, I attended the shura but said very little. The engineer thanked me to the crowd and when the people looked at me I said, through the engineer's interpretation, the thanks should go to the soldiers who brought it to my attention and, of course, to the engineer who was making the repair-work possible.

Chris, I hope I did the right thing for my Army colleagues by crediting them; my desire was to elevate their hoop-la rating. Perhaps you all should be part of pre-deployment training for teams that go into conflict zones for the State Department Bureau of Conflict Stabilization and the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives. Certainly, I would have benefitted from such training.

Thank you again, Chris, and good luck with your good work,
Ned McDonnell.

Chris Lundry

Tue, 03/26/2013 - 1:56pm

Dear Ned,

Thanks for writing. Your experience in Afghanistan is, as we have come to find out, unfortunately typical of hearts and minds campaigns elsewhere, and by various actors. Regarding your question about shaping the rumor-scape, we advocate a thorough understanding of the conditions in which rumors arise and how they tap into existing beliefs, often rendered as stories. This is why we describe rumors as a type of story, rather than more generically as a type of information. We use the term “narrative landscape” to describe the wide array of narratives in a particular region, and these are difficult or impossible to change. But if there is, for example, a rumor mosaic painting a Peace Corps mission as harmful, then yes, it is possible to confront and disempower rumors with the kind of information you describe, including transparency, but it must be accomplished within an understanding of the narrative landscape. Simply relying on a rational logic (identify problem, identify solution, propose implementation) depends on an assumption of equal perception of thenature of the problem/solution/implementation – but can ignore the narrative landscape and thus fail. In our book Narrative Landmines, we have a case about Ambon, Indonesia, where the US Navy’s Pacific Partnership mission encountered rumors detrimental to its mission to inoculate livestock. Transparency, verification, information, and gaining the trust of local elites and others were important factors to the success of this mission, as was an understanding of the narrative landscape in which these rumors were poised to take hold. We contrast that case with a failed mission in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” to inoculate cows; in that case, the rumors combined with others (such as US helicopters creating dust to ruin farmers’ crops) to form a mosaic painting US aims as sinister, and the outreach effort failed despite its best intentions of problem, solution and implementation.

With regard to the skepticism with which rumors in Syria might be viewed, we’re not so sure. We argue that in cases where the government controls the mass media, the population tends tomistrust official sources. This creates a situation in which rumors hold more sway and can gain more traction and displace official sources, and in so doing become credible. Oftentimes, however, rumors come from “official” sources, whether or not they can be traced to them. For example, both sides in the Syrian conflict are now accusing each other of using chemical or biologicalweapons. We imagine international actors are interested in finding the 'truth', but to a regular Syrian these rumors must seem sinister and, if given coherence and fidelity with local narrative landscape, might even sway one’s allegiance to one side or the other. After all, the “middle ground” – or those who haven’t chosen sides – is those who are frequently targeted for these kinds of campaigns.

Again, thanks for writing, and your interest in our work!


Chris Lundry

Hubba Bubba

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 8:54am

It all depends on how you use the term "narrative." Are you using it in the military traditionalist approach, or from a post-modern, or histiographic perspective.

Are narratives able to be "weaponized"? In the military traditionalist paradigm, perhaps. We use inappropriate terms frequently because we fail to deeply understand both the terms, and ourselves (as an institution). Thus, we have "human terrain" and "narrative weapons" and "money as a weapon system." The term "weapon" is deceptively alluring; to coin a new phrase with 'weapon' attached makes something more appealing.

How about 'Public Affairs weaponized release articles', 'cyberspace weaponization of software", or "shelf-stable milk products weaponized against hunger" or "weaponized weapons- making the lethal even more deadly?"

Our culture, institutional paradigms, and how we employ our language into our methodology is just as important to understanding how we tend to think, how we think about thinking, as it is to how we communicate and share knowledge.

Hubba Bubba


Wed, 03/27/2013 - 7:02pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

People who live in environments where news is heavily censored often have to fall back on rumor, and may end up giving it more trust than it deserves. When the phrase "official sources" is synonymous with "bullsh!t", being an official source doesn't help.

A few personal rules for those who would win hearts and minds:

1. What you say doesn't matter. What you do matters. Until your actions prove you worthy of trust, all you say is suspect.

2. Trust is earned by and given to individuals, not institutions. If you spend 3 years winning trust and then leave, your successor starts largely from scratch.

3. Earning trust takes time.

Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 03/21/2013 - 9:00pm

Messrs Ruston, PhD; Lundry; and, Bernardi; as well as, Ms Cheong, PhD,

Thank you all for an interesting article. The problems encountered with inoculating cattle reminded me of a similar situation at a PRT where I served with USAID in Northern AfghanLand. Without besieging you with details, the rumorscape seemed rather easy to figure out, at least to my skeptical nature. Simply said, I asked myself, "What would I say to discredit something and get people upset, whether or not it was true?" It was pretty clear what the narrative would be by identifying what concerns the local residents had with our presence.

The idea being proposed, which was intuitively appealing but still unproven, went ahead despite my interceding directly with the proponent to alert him that the initiative went against Afghan national policy and to request the implementation suggested by counterparts in the Embassy. That roll-out would have proceeded slowly to assure complete word-of-mouth dissemination with full transparency of the problem identified, the solution proposed and the implementation selected.

And that leads to my question to you all. Is it possible to shape the rumorscape by being transparent in identifying, in terms people will understand, the problem, its solution and its implementation? In this case, I do not know what happened with that project; the propaganda line was obvious.

Interestingly, I also found that rumors create a self-interested narrative inside coalition or cross-agency groups. Oftentimes, the motives behind these narratives may be as basic as a financial interest in getting a contract extended or expanded. The idea is to paint things in vivid, frightening colors so the outside providers can ‘save the day’, even if the USG fails to save our money.

Lastly, I have one more question. Wouldn't the people who are hardened to the government propaganda in Syria be at least moderately skeptical of the rumorscape in general or a particular piece of innuendo in particular?

Very truly yours,
Ned McDonnell, CFA; Peace Corps.