Secrets of Spreading Rumors
Last week someone forwarded me the e-story of a vacationing family thrown together with Senator John McCain and his family at a luxury resort on Turtle Island, Fiji. McCain comes off as overbearing, tedious and a lecherous pig—a boor, bore and boar.
The piece is so explicit—written with such outrage and so filled with detail—that its truth seems self-evident.
Or, is it the work of a master fiction writer out to spread a rumor and help scuttle John McCain's campaign?
Welcome to a discussion about rumors and smears—and what to do if you're the spreader, the smearee or the smearer.
Mary-Kay Gamel, Ph.D., a professor of classics at the University of California Santa Cruz, has achieved 15 minutes of fame via Web notoriety. She's linked to a scurrilous portrait of Sen. John McCain that's rocketing around cyberspace to the delight of McCain haters ("See, I told you so!") and the anger of McCain fans and supporters.
I decided to check out the story to see if it were true, partially true or a pants-on-fire lie. I Googled the professor and up came the following:
1. Confirmation: Mary Kay Gamel DID NOT write the letter about ...
2. Oct 2, 2008 ... Confirmation: Mary Kay Gamel DID NOT write the letter about vacationing with John McCain in Turtle ...
I did some more Web surfing, wrote this story and e-mailed it off to Prof. Gamel, offering her the chance to correct any errors and make any comments.
By return e-mail, I received an automatic reply hotly disavowing the story point-by-point, followed by the following disclaimer:
I regret the misinformation which is circulating, but it is not my doing, and I protest the misuse of my name. How I think this happened: on 16 September I received this account 3rd-hand and forwarded it, with full email trail information and the name of the purported author (whom I don't know), to several friends with whom I discuss politics. It was further forwarded, and at some point the trail was deleted and I was misidentified as the author. I suspect whoever did this thought that my name and contact information would make the story more credible.
(The complete text of Gamel's automatic e-mail to me is included as an illustration at the end of this issue.)
This leaves the story in limbo. It may be a perfectly true account about the McCains, but from a family other than that of Gamel, who claims to have gotten a bum rap along with Sen. McCain. Or could it be a brilliantly written smear?
If Prof. Gamel's theory is correct—that a mischief-maker tied her to the story with the hope of adding credibility—the ploy failed. Gamel's quick denial, which was the top entry on Google, pretty much absolves her and at the same time negates the McCain story whether or not it be true.
One rule of thumb: It's irresponsible to forward an incendiary e-mail to 100 of your nearest and dearest friends and colleagues without first researching its authenticity. You can wind up looking like a chump.
Always remember that www stands for Wild West Web.
Below are hyperlinks to this story so you can make up your own mind—or do further research.
The Greatest Rumor in History
Check out the link to "Operation Quicksilver," below. The Allies' brilliant D-Day ruse tricked the enemy into believing that the Pas de Calais was to be the invasion site rather than the beaches of Normandy to the west. Sans the successful Quicksilver, the Nazis might have increased the defenses at Gold, Sword, Omaha, Juno and Utah Beaches; repelled the British and American invaders; and prolonged the war in Europe by two or three years. This is great cloak-and-dagger stuff. Here were double agents; phony radio traffic; rubber tanks, jeeps and trucks littering the British countryside for aerial reconnaissance aircraft to report back to Berlin; and the grandest of ploys—a fictional First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) headed by none other than the general most feared by the Germans: George S. Patton Jr.
Gentlemen Spies in the U.S.
On a far smaller scale was the British Security Coordination (BSC)—the subject of a truly delicious new book by Jennet Conant, "The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington." Headed by the reclusive and mysterious Canadian industrialist Bill Stephenson, code-named Intrepid, this unlikely band of randy Brits was set up to counter rampant isolationism and persuade the American government and public that entering the war against Germany and saving Britain was good and necessary.
Among the players in this spy ring: Ian Fleming (later of James Bond fame), Noel Coward, David Ogilvy and Roald Dahl—a tall, charming, killer-handsome bachelor on disability from the RAF who wheedled his way into Eleanor Roosevelt's inner circle and became a back-alley conduit of information between the president and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Dahl went on to marry actress Patricia Neal and become a highly successful author of children's books, as well as a prolific television- and screenwriter ("Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "You Only Live Twice").
Here is the fascinating tale of a band of buoyant blackguards who wormed their way into the dining rooms, salons, saloons and bedrooms of the nation's rich and powerful, reported everything back to the British embassy, the high command in London and, when applicable, Churchill himself. In addition, they generated an avalanche of misinformation, disinformation, rumors and counterintelligence. The revolutionary techniques of molding public opinion, and manipulating the media, government and businesses, that were developed by the naughty playboys of BCS are as relevant today in the epoch of the Internet as they were when the world was threatened with Nazi domination.
A sampling from "The Irregulars":
For large-scale whispering campaigns, the [British Security Coordination] maintained an organization known as the Rumor Factory, which dated back to 1941 and was directed from the New York headquarters. Its purpose was to make sure misleading stories were spread through many different channels—from established newspaper and radio figures to special commercial and diplomatic contacts—and on many different social, professional, and economic levels. The BSC took this form of political warfare very seriously, and the official history lists the key rules its representatives were expected to observe:
1. A good rumour should never be traceable to its source.
2. A rumour should be of the kind which is likely to gain in the telling.
3. Particular rumours should be designed to appeal to particular groups (i.e., Catholics, or ethnic groups such as Czechs, Poles, etc.)
4. A particular rumour should have a specific purpose.
5. Rumours are most effective if they can be originated in several different places simultaneously and in such a way that they shuttle back and forth, with each new report apparently confirming previous ones.
Advice as valid today as it was in the 1940s.