A rumor is an unverified piece of information or story that spreads from person to person without any clear evidence or surety about its truth. It typically involves some matter of public interest or concern and often influences opinion or behavior. In the case of a major event, rumors may even lead to dangerous consequences. Therefore, it is important to understand how they are produced and disseminated to control the potential damage of a rumor.
Research on rumors spans several disciplines, including sociology, psychology, communication, and management. While researchers have varying definitions of a rumor, most agree that it is an inaccurate, unproven statement pertaining to a particular object or event. The term rumor has also been referred to as a slander, myth, or hearsay.
One of the reasons a rumor can go viral is because of social media. It is easy to share a rumor through Twitter or Facebook and it is usually accompanied by a picture or video that makes it seem more credible. This can lead to people ignoring warnings and taking unnecessary risks.
Moreover, people tend to believe a rumor more when it is heard from someone they consider reliable. For example, in a laboratory experiment, a Wall Street stockbroker was more likely to believe the false rumor that the White House was covering up the murder of aide Vince Foster if it came from someone known to him than from a stranger. Hearing a rumor multiple times also increases its credibility. For instance, a newspaper article about a bombing was more believed when it was repeated several times than when it was only published once.
Rumors are also discussed by people trying to make sense of an ambiguous situation or manage a physical or psychological threat. For instance, a school district superintendent’s departure was the subject of many rumors as employees speculated and discussed the reason for her departure.
Another reason for the popularity of rumors is that they are difficult to debunk. However, studies show that a rumor is more likely to be identified as a rumor if it is accompanied by a debunking message from an authoritative source. This is why it is important for news organizations, emergency agencies, and politicians to actively counter rumors during emergencies and to distribute correct information through multiple channels.