Among parties engaged in intense conflict, there is typically little direct formal communication or sharing of information. Informally, however, there are likely to be numerous parties who are constantly talking with one another about the conflict. Any gap in knowledge or communication may be filled by rumor or misrepresentation. Indeed, the information that is being spread through these informal interactions often contains serious inaccuracies that are likely to make the conflict more destructive than necessary. Such communications, which we call rumors, can also be spread through the mass media -- television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet.

Parties' ability to deal constructively with conflict is largely determined by how well they understand the situation. A history of secrecy and deception makes it more difficult for parties to understand one another's and may contribute to inaccurate perceptions and destructive rumors. This may make it difficult for parties to understand who else is involved in the conflict, what they're doing, and why.

In addition, rumors may erode parties' mutual trust and make it more difficult for them to move towards peace. A proliferation of negative rumors increases the chances that the parties' will develop worst-case images of one another, which in turn may result in polarization, dehumanization and violence. Thus, rumors often serve to escalate conflict in potentially dangerous ways. In cases where the rumors involve the meaning of military force movements, they may even lead to unwarranted military confrontation.

Dealing with Rumors

The key to effective rumor control efforts is an ability to perform three functions.

  • First, some mechanism is needed for determining what rumors are actually circulating.
  • Second, an effective strategy is needed for determining which rumors are true, and which are false.
  • Finally, mechanisms are needed for correcting inaccurate rumors and replacing them with reliable information.

The first step, rumor identification, requires the support of people in each constituency group who are in a position to hear the latest rumors as they are circulating. In general, these are people who are very active in the conflict and interested in developing more constructive approaches. It is often helpful to provide these "rumor reporters" with training so that they understand how misinformation can drive the cycle of destructive escalation. It is also important that these individuals to be widely trusted by members of their constituency group.

The next phase of the rumor control process requires a workable mechanism determining the truthfulness of rumors. Here "rumor investigators" (who may be the same people as the "rumor reporters" or others), help determine, from their group's perspective, the accuracy of rumors pertaining to their group. While there will certainly be cases were the practices of secrecy and deception makereliable rumor checking impossible, there will also be many cases in which incorrect rumors can be at least partially corrected.

This rumor investigation mechanism can be structured in a variety of ways, as long as it provides information that is widely regarded as trustworthy and reliable. "Rumor reporters" might be organized into a committee made up of people from both or all sides that meets periodically to exchange information about current rumors and then organize efforts to determine their accuracy. These committees should also involve people with access to the information needed to conduct effective investigations.

Another way of structuring such a program involves widely-trusted neutral intermediaries who systematically contact key parties involved in a conflict to identify and investigate the latest rumors. When these intermediaries hear a story that they think is likely to be untrue, they initiate an investigation to try to determine whether or not the story is accurate. Also needed is a plan for handling inconclusive investigations. This means that the investigators have to clearly acknowledge cases in which they are unable to determine the reliability of rumor.

The third and final phase of rumor control efforts is rumor correction. Here the investigators need some reliable mechanism for promptly reporting their findings to interested parties. In cases were there is no agreement on what has happened, they should report what is known, what is not known, and what is still being investigated. They should also report differing interpretations of available facts. When an investigation determines that the rumor is not true, then a plan for correcting the error should be initiated. The success of this plan depends upon the credibility of the intermediaries and their ability to communicate widely, effectively, and quickly.

The media often plays an important role in rumor control. They can correct misinformation and publicize information coming from the rumor-control effort. This is especially important when negotiations are going on. When negotiations are held in private, the press can get very suspicious, and will sometimes try to develop stories from rumors about the private meetings. In addition, the media sometimes publicizes inflammatory remarks and slanted stories that do not give an accurate picture of the situation. Conflict parties and intermediaries can help prevent such occurrences by making the effort to explain the issues to reporters in as careful and non-biased a way as possible. They can explain what conflict management processes are in place or are being considered, who is involved, and how the process is structured. They can also ask for the media's support in giving positive, responsible coverage of these events. To prevent the spreading of false rumors, frequent press releases or issue papers that explain what is happening in the negotiations can help generate positive media coverage. If press releases are impossible, as they are with especially sensitive negotiations that need complete privacy, explaining to the press why such privacy is needed and promising a full report at the end can be helpful. Finally, parties can provide reporters with fact-finding assistance the form of names and phone numbers of key people to contact for more information.

"If I'm mediating, I absolutely avoid having the media there. I make sure that I explain to them beforehand why, and try to explain that if media's in the room, we end up having two levels of negotiation. We have one level of negotiation which was sort of typical mediation, trying to resolve a problem. But we've got another level where they're talking strictly to the media wanting to make sure that they say what needs to be in the paper in the morning. That is not necessarily conducive to actually solving a problem. I have generally found media to be very understanding of that and accepting of that. If it's a formal type of mediation process, I try to tell them that when the mediation is completed we will be sure they get a copy of the signed agreement. We will have a press conference where they can talk to the parties that were involved, if they want to do that. But we ask them please understand that at the time negotiations are going on-- within that setting-- it just would undermine the process. They've usually been pretty understanding of that."

-- Silke Hansen, the Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project; available here.

The United States Community Relations Service (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice empowered to intervene in racial conflicts) often utilizes rumor-control teams within communities in an effort to stop rumors that harm inter-group relations. Community-based rumor control centers help to ensure that the public and the media have access to accurate information and that rumors are investigated and properly handled. Those hearing rumors or wanting reliable information are urged to call the centralized telephone number. In many cases, these information centers are managed by a city official and maintained by a cross section of community members. This allows the authorities to work together with community members to combat destructive rumors. These centers contribute to community stability and can be an important part of violence prevention in areas where there is deep inter-group tension.

"Some communities have rumor control telephone numbers that are provided with accurate information by the police department, sheriff's department, or city officials. Community members or the press can then call the number to find out whether a rumor they have heard is true. For example, a community member might call in and say, 'we heard that fifty cars of [gang members] are coming down the highway, and we would verify that and say 'yes' or 'no'. So rumor control involved getting as accurate information as possible, so that if anybody would call, we could convey the correct information. Because rumors begin when you have something like that and they are way off the wall, but the person doesn't know that until you try to find out if it's true or not. The press might call, too."

-- Manuel Salinas, the Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project; available here.

Perhaps the best-developed examples of rumor control mechanisms are the crisis-control centers developed during the heart of the Cold War. These confidence-building measures aimed to prevent incomplete information about the actions of opposing military forces from escalating into a violent and dangerous confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

William Ury describes many such measures (and suggested many more) in his book Beyond the Hotline, which was written during the Cold War when nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was still a very real possibility. Ury points out that some of the basic elements of a crisis control system were already in place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The hotline allowed for direct, immediate communication. A series of agreements made during the early 1970s established procedures for dealing with unintended naval encounters between the superpowers, notification procedures for accidental missile launches, ground-rules for superpower activities in the Third World, and obliged the superpowers to consult each other in any situation which involved an above-normal risk of nuclear war.

Conclusion

While the Cold War is now over, the problem of unsubstantiated rumors contributing to serious international misunderstandings and war is more obvious than ever. For example, there was a rumor in the U.S. that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, which was one of the many reasons why the U.S. administration decided that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or at least the ability to make them. This rumor later proved to be false, as did most of the other "facts" surrounding Iraq's WMD program. While the problems that led to the Iraq war were deeper than simple rumors, rumor control efforts might have played a significant role in slowing down the U.S.'s march to war.

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By Heidi Burgess and Michelle Maiese

Heidi Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. Her primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. She is one of the creators and Co-Directors of the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project (which is the "parent" of this website), and also co-created and co-directs CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. She is also one of the primary authors and creators of five online conflict resolution courses, and has edited and authored a number of books, journals, and articles on intractable conflicts and conflict resolution more generally. www.beyondintractability.org