Issue 4/2001 - future worlds

Rumor Clinics

False information, viruses, rumors and other syndromes in communicative processes, and early American methods of prevention and cure

Andrea van der Straeten

»Talk to your partner about MTV!« – »It's so itchy – have I got MTV maybe?«

In April of this year (01), the TV music broadcaster MTV smuggled an info-virus into the public communication channels. The reference made on the posters to HIV may seem perfidious – »Many people with MTV still lead happy and productive lives« – but the way in which the cliché of a society addicted to television is satirized by drawing a parallel to familiar symptoms of addictive illness is clever. MTV celebrated its 20th anniversary by starting up a »rumor«: this promotion campaign was meant to exploit the often rather paranoid attention of a virus and disease-conscious American public.
»People have to know about MTV.« – Do they?

»Many Mourned the Death of the Cybersweetheart Who Never Was.« This was the title of a report in the International Herald Tribune of June 1 on the creation of an internet rumor whose spectacular culmination and final exposure as an »intricately detailed fabrication« alienated thousands of visitors to the web site. They had tried for more than a year via the internet to encourage 19-year-old Kaycee, who was ill with leukemia – sending her presents, supposedly talking with her on the telephone – until her unexpected death made many of her online friends suspicious. There was increasing pressure through the questions of Kaycee fans, the local police and the FBI were called in, and the girl was eventually found to be the invention of a housewife and mother from Peabody, Kansas.

In July, e-mails warned about a new sort of virus, not a computer virus in the usual sense, but an »idea virus«: the accelerated rate of communication owing to the internet, the rapid spread of ideas in the Net was said to hold the danger of infection with a so-called »meme,« comparable in structure to a gene: a sort of replicator, a »consciousness virus,« as it were. Rumors and the creation of rumors are booming both in conventional mass-cultural information channels such as advertising, posters and newspapers, and on the internet. And preoccupation with them has gone beyond the social segments in which rumors are under constant observation: from sociological studies on the consequent need for political action, to the work done by national secret services, especially in times of global political crisis.

As rumors are communicated faster and faster via mobile phone, SMS, internet, cable television, etc., they are also increasingly gaining the attention of people working in the fields of culture and the arts.1

Publications containing results of sociological and psychological research on rumors, once numerous, above all during and after the Second World War, have now sunk into oblivion. However, since the mid-nineties, another focus has become clear: rumor as an event and strategy in communicative processes – as a »medium.« This angle naturally coincides with the final and truly global establishment of Net culture.

The examples cited at the beginning of this article clearly show one thing: almost all metaphors, images and names for interrupted or misdirected communication, like the rumor, are taken from the area of »illness,« in addition to the fact that the subject of the rumors is also illness. In its ambiguity, the rumor is not information, but also not false information; it can choose a different media guise each time from an entire repertoire ranging from confidential conversations to illustrated, blatant slogans; it does not disclose its sources or only pretends to. The rumor thus breaks the logical chain which makes up a comprehensible, rational transfer of information. It is uncontrollable and becomes the weak link in the structure of social and, above all, political actions: an infection that calls for experts to cure it.

»Virus: the causative agent of many illnesses, such as smallpox, measles, rabies, mumps, warts; in its communicative form it produces social fever and is invented and treated in rumor clinics.«2

[i]I have closely investigated this idea of a rumor clinic – a place where communication that has gone out of control (whose?) is to be patched together again and »cured« (for what purpose?). My motivation was a question that came up in my own work: rumor as communicative sculpture ... can we include something as intangible and ephemeral as rumor as MATERIAL in the artistic process? A lecture on March 29 in Gallery 400 in Chicago was the start of my research. None of those present had ever heard anything about the rumor clinics, even though, according to the few sources available, they were active in Chicago up to the mid-seventies and met with great public response. I would like to find the place, the building, in which the »Chicago Hope« of rumor-infected communication was located – to find out who was in charge and who worked there.[/i]

The enormous variety of rumors set off by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and which provoked fears of a »social fever« in the population, led to the first organized medical operation in the area of communications: the first so-called rumor clinic was set up in March 1942 in Boston, a month after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech on February 23, 1942.

The national hospital in which the American communications channels were to be cured of the subversive virus was set up by a citizens' movement together with a psychology professor from Harvard: Gordon Allport. His publication »The Psychology of Rumors« (with co-author Leo Postman) is still indisputably the standard work on rumor research today – but it is out of print, and, like the rumor clinics themselves, it has almost completely vanished from American public awareness.

[i]Even Hamsa Walker, the Director of Education of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, knows nothing about the existence of rumor clinics in Chicago. He advises me to contact Bernadine Dohrn, who, in the sixties, was on the wanted list for a long time because of her critical stance towards the government. If it were clear whether the rumor clinics were organized by the state (FBI) or municipally, she would be an important information source for a critical view of the rumor clinics. My colleague from the School of Art and Design knows her, because she also acted as a model for artists in the sixties.[/i]

The way the rumor clinics functioned does in fact read like a chapter in a medical textbook. First step: anamnesis. »Rumor scouts« sought out rumors, wrote them down, and brought them to the clinics. Diagnosis followed, based on examination and verification of the rumors, then came the therapy, which, as if treating symptoms, countered the rumors with state-sanctioned information, and tried as a preventative measure to find out the psychological reasons for their being spread, such as hidden, repressed fears and prejudices, etc..

In 1943, the plaster applied to the wounds in national communication were comparatively simple. A weekly column in the Boston Sunday Traveler correcting rumors about the war seemed enough to stop the »social fever« climbing high enough to be worrying. America was by no means the only country to combat rumors about the events and course of the war as a preventative measure; all the nations involved had their own strategies for dealing with rumors. The idea of a clinic in which damaged national communication received »treatment« was, however, unique in this form.

After the war, the clinics were »shut,« the columns correcting rumors disappeared from the print media, the concept seemed forgotten. That is, until another sort of war revived the idea of rumor clinics: a conflict within America that spread in civil-war scenarios and that, in 1968, after the assassination of the black civil rights campaigner Martin Luther, made it seem advisable to employ both new and proven methods of fighting rumors.

[i]There is nothing on record at the Historical Society of Chicago except the standard American work on rumor research, and an FBI report from the sixties, which, strangely, cannot be found. The Afro-American librarian promises to look for it, but the report never turns up.[/i]

[i]An advertisement in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader:
»Austrian artist looking for info on Rumor Clinics or Rumor Clarification Centers operating in Chicago up to the 1970s. Please contact:«.[/i]

[i]I am contacted by a special agent (FBI), who had not actually worked in the rumor clinic, but had rung it up as a young man in the sixties and »reported« incidents.[/i]

The close connection between rumors, racism, and revolts had been recognized since the clash between black and white sections of the population at the beginning of the century.3
The reaction to the escalation of violence after King's death was as prompt as that to Roosevelt's speech: in July 1967, the first clinic was (re-)opened in Chicago, on the model of the previous rumor clinics. It was given the less pictorial and pathetic name of »rumor central,« and the medium had also changed: the medium of print had been replaced by telecommunications, the newspaper columns by a special public telephone service »... designed to operate during times of racial tension.«4 The guidelines set up by the commission for installing »rumor centrals« throughout the country make an almost frighteningly naive impression today. What were the first steps? Advertising the telephone number, technical equipment, personnel, clearly defined procedures, an adequate system of fast communication with the fire brigade, police and secret services. What was needed? A telephone number, telephone books, office equipment, two to ten telephones, a large city map – visible from all telephones –, a transparent sheet to cover the map, on which felt pens were used to mark street blockades (black), fights and fires (red), snipers (thick blue) and the quiet districts or bus bypass routes (yellow). A sort of traffic report for worried (white?) citizens. The scenario recalls the rules of conduct issued by governments in the case of a nuclear attack: duck and cover. Don't we remember photographs and short films in which men held briefcases protectively over their heads, and women and children crawled about under tables and school desks to escape atomic fallout?

In fact, the number of calls to the rumor central in Chicago shot up from around 5000 in a summer month in 1967 to 40,000 calls in six days in April 1968, after King's death. Scouts were out in the streets collecting rumors from intermediaries such as bar owners, hairdressers, business people etc., and passing them on to the central.

[i]After several failed attempts, a piece of internet research provides an important clue. The Chicago rumor central was situated in the building of the Commission on Human Relations. My telephone messages remain unanswered. Probably, the staff think my inquiry about material concerning the rumor clinic is a joke. The building in which the Commission is housed is in a district that was one of the most notorious for violence in the USA from the 60s to the end of the 90s: Cabrini Green. In a personal conversation with the chairman of the Commission, I find out that he also knows nothing about the rumor clinics. The Commission has moved three times since the sixties; all the material has disappeared. But he said he would ask some of the older people working there.[/i]

Finding and collecting rumors, correcting false rumors by means of information from the mayor's office, and attempts to calm an outraged or frightened population were not able to prevent either Martin Luther King's assassination or the riots that followed. Or the escalating violence during fights between various gangs in Cabrini, which created, amid chic urban surroundings, a sort of violence-dominated parallel world against which the administration and executive were powerless. One black resident of Cabrini says that, when shown the countless bullet holes in windows and furniture in her sitting room, the police only gave her the tip not to spend time in the sitting room but in the kitchen instead.

[i]After a month of intensive searching, I find proof that the existence of rumor clinics was/is not a rumor: a thin file with a memorandum by the Commission on Human Relations on the establishment of a Rumor Central in Chicago in 1967, as well as an illustrated information brochure about the work there.[/i]

[i]Upon close examination, it already contains some clues about the later failure of the attempt to prevent revolts – caused by racism and hate between different sections of the population – by controlling rumors. Although a third of the Commission's staff is meant to be black people who work in the »riot areas,« almost all the personnel shown is white.[/i]

A critical study from 19755 on the relationship of rumors to racism and protests attributes the failure of the rumor clarification centers to the fact that the telephone service mostly attended to the growing paranoia of only one section of the population, the white part, and increasingly became an instrument of repression against black citizens. This came about particularly because an increasing number of the rumor centrals were implemented in existing organizations of the white power bloc across America – police departments, city senates, etc. – and fostered an ever tighter surveillance network. The assumption of being able to prevent revolts by controlling rumors was a naive one. Although the peddling of false information and wild rumors can aggravate a tense situation, it is not the cause of it. Instead of analyzing the real reason for collective violence, people had only tried to cure some of the symptoms. But it is not the rumors that are the problem, but the circumstances in which they grow.

The brochure that the commission used in 1968 to convince the population of the necessity for rumor control cited how much faster rumors spread in a society connected by telephone than in the situation that had existed 25 years earlier. The time interval that has elapsed before the establishment of the internet may be longer, all other factors already go beyond any imaginable proportionality. While viruses that were already deemed forgotten, like anthrax, are spread using the traditional method of snail mail, films are already showing the infiltration of a paranoid population by consciousness viruses that lead to a suicide epidemic via the internet.6 We can be sure that Medicopter is already on its way in the Net.


Translated by Tim Jones


1 I will mention two artistic projects from recent years as examples: »Haus der Kälte« (1998), in which I tried to define the public space of a small Austrian town, above and beyond its architectural parameters, as a public space determined by media and communication, and started up a rumor about a movie produced there. This project was the start of my artistic work with rumor as material in the esthetic process. See also: Andrea van der Straeten: Haus der Kälte, Triton Verlag Vienna, 1999.
»The B-Thing«: fixing a balcony on the 91st story of the World Trade Center for a few minutes at daybreak in the summer of 2000, together with the group Gelatin. This action seemed so unbelievable that it was mostly taken to be a game playing with the starting of rumors. A publication containing a great deal of photographic evidence was not able to allay these doubts. The events of 9.11.01, the destruction of the towers, may play an additional part in keeping the project suspended between truth and fiction.
See also: Gelatin The B-Thing, Walther König, Cologne 2001.

2 Hans-Joachim Neubauer: Fama, Eine Geschichte des Gerüchts (The Rumour. A Cultural History, London, Free Association Books, 1999) Berlin Verlag 1998, p.232

3 In 1922, the Chicago Commission of Race at the University of Chicago published a 660-page report: »The Negro in Chicago. A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.« Fuelled by various rumors, a bloody revolt lasting for days broke out after a black boy who had been driven into the water in a part of the city beach reserved for whites was unable to swim to the shore and drowned. This report is considered to be the very beginning of America rumor research.

4 Memorandum Rumor Central, Commission on Human Relations, Municipal Reference Library of Chicago, p.1

5 Terry Ann Knopf: Rumors, Race and Riots.
Transaction Books, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1975

6 »KAIRO«, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan 2001