Daniel Bernardi, a professor at San Francisco's State University and three researchers in Arizona, will receive $1.6 million for a four-year project that seeks to discover and reduce the damage caused by rumors in war zones.
Nanette Asimov, writing on SFGate.com, reports:
In 2005, two years into the Iraq war, American soldiers began vaccinating cows across that nation not only to improve their health but also to garner goodwill among Iraqi farmers.
But instead of appreciating the help, the farmers stepped up support for the insurgents and even joined the violence.
Why? Because of a single, well-placed rumor that the Americans were actually poisoning livestock to starve the Iraqis. A rumor, it turns out, can be as deadly as an IED, the improvised explosive devices favored by insurgents.
The scenario is a little reminiscent of "Snow Crash" the 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, a future where a media mogul searches for a way to easily transmit ideas from person to person.
Some of the Navy's money will be spent on a smart phone app.
"By uploading rumors as they are encountered on the battlefield, operational and strategic commanders will be able to track their spread," the professor told the Navy in his grant application.
The team will focus on rumors in Afghanistan and will assess a response based on the context of the incident, the culture, history, and religion of the people.
Ultimately, he envisions a website for anyone, anywhere, to check in on threatening rumors as they check on threatening weather.
It's an interesting approach but it's difficult to see how this remote team will be able to effectively understand and offer advice on how to respond to rumors in such an alien culture to that of the team's.
Responses to inaccurate information are one thing, but there are lots of other rumors that that will undoubtably contain subtle details and code words that could slide easily unnoticed by US researchers. Responding quickly is key to defusing damaging rumors, how will such a remote team manage such a vital task?
There is also another aspect to this project: it could be used to track the effectiveness of rumors placed deliberately by the US military; and to track, identify and intercept rumor mongers. I wonder if the US academics understand that their work could potentially target people for actions that would be protected in the US under free speech laws.