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Researchers help U.S. military track, defuse rumors


October 14, 2011|Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
  • S.F. State Professor Daniel Bernardi leads the effort to identify and track military rumors.
    S.F. State Professor Daniel Bernardi leads the effort to identify and track military rumors.
    Credit: Susana Bates / Special to The Chronicle

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.

That's why the U.S. Navy is paying $1.6 million to San Francisco State University Professor Daniel Bernardi and three Arizona researchers to track, collect and find ways to defuse stories used as weapons.

Those who doubt the lethal power of "narrative IEDs," as Bernardi calls them, might recall the impact of another falsehood initially spread by now-deceased Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: that his country had weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration used that rumor to justify invading Iraq and for a war that continues today.

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"Like their explosive cousins, rumors can be created and planted by nearly anybody, require limited resources to utilize, can be deadly for those in its direct path, and can instill fear," said Bernardi, a Naval Reserve officer who served 10 months in Iraq and six months in the Pacific.

He calls them a "low-cost, low-tech weapon."

Involving technology

To find out which rumors are genuine threats, the Navy will pay $400,000 a year for four years to Bernardi and his team of computing and communications experts. They plan to start the project the way many start these days: with an app.

A rumor app for smart phones.

"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.

Into a new database of pernicious fictions they'll go, as Bernardi's team tries to learn which ones pose a threat anywhere in the world. Figuring that out requires knowledge of the communities where the rumors germinate and thrive.

And that gets to Bernardi's speciality: cultural and media studies.

Giving military an edge

Bernardi has a doctorate in film and TV from UCLA, has taught at Arizona State University, and has written and edited books on race in the movie industry.

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