Strange stories were circulating in America around the 1940s. There was one about a woman whose head exploded in a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her work at the ammunition factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to supply America’s water supply with arsenic, and a Massachusetts couple reported they picked up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge of defeat before disappearing like a ghost from the back of his car.
All of these stories were lies – but that didn’t stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into World War II, the newspapers fought false news in fear of Nazi propaganda efforts.
The rumor clinics
About three months after Japan̵
The Boston HeraldAccording to a January 24, 1943, the Rumor Clinic’s weekly column was duplicated across the country, with up to 40 different newspapers publishing their own versions New York Times Feature. At the time, there were fears that Germany’s propaganda power would lead to disagreement among the US population. “The United States was convinced that the moment the war broke out, it would be completely bombarded by rumors from the Germans. To counter these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track them down, ”Nick Cull, professor at the University of Southern California and expert on war propaganda, told Mental Floss.
Rumors undermine rationing and industrial war efforts, like rumors of a woman whose head exploded in a hair salon. Other stories heightened racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of these rumors said that Jewish people were not required to do military service or that white soldiers had black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from black civilians.
“They were stories Americans told each other,” says Cull. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”
Nail a local lie
About three months after the first column, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information on June 13, 1942 by order of the executive branch. As Sidney Shalett wrote The New York TimesThe OWI viewed local communities as “the best place to pin a local lie”. The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that, despite suspicions that German saboteurs were devastating America’s psyche, most of the rumors, according to Cull, were race-based lies spread by other Americans.
At the end of the war, the rumor clinics disintegrated when the OWI adopted a new strategy for spreading facts without repeating rumors. Rather than directly questioning racist rumors, the OWI published materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans fight the Axis together.
According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of debunked rumors can also reinforce them. This became a problem for the OWI, leading it to fear pressure rumors only to deny them. “There’s always been misinformation,” says Smith, “and we haven’t gotten any smarter.”