A rumor is a “snake oil” method of communication that lets you tell others what they want to hear so they will be more likely to believe you. A rumor can start from a simple rumor that a neighbor told you about a new car the other day, which turns out to be all untrue. A rumor is something you make up for a reason. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?
The problem with most rumours is that they lack a concrete detail and are generally of low value. They are basically gossip, which may not have some grain of truth in it. Generally, a well planned piece of propaganda is better. Rumors are used to manipulate people. Rumors are generally worse than propaganda, simply because they take time to formulate and propagate before the fact.
The most obvious use of gossip is to spread information. Gossip is also a powerful form of social capital. If you are being lied to by someone you trust to talk honestly, it is important that you know that other people who are lying to you are doing so with your consent. Without this, the whole dynamic of communication changes: once you learn that your friend or colleague is being untruthful to you, your opinion may be tainted and you will begin to question their entire pattern of behaviour. This will inevitably lead you to question the veracity of their whole story – and if you are not careful, you will start to search for evidence of their dishonesty, instead of the subject of their gossip.
There is a particular reason why rumours are particularly effective in the social cognition domain; individuals are more likely to behave according to the expectations of others, if what they are told agrees with their world view or their core beliefs. A common example of this is where a rumour about a new product is told to people who have already bought the product in the market. This creates the ‘hypothesis’ that the product will meet their goals, as there is good evidence that they will indeed buy it. They therefore invest considerable effort in trying to convince you that the rumour is true. However, if they fail, it is unlikely that they will experience any loss because they have already invested a lot of money in the expectation of selling a product that has yet to fulfil their promises – it is much better if they are wrong because they have wasted their time.
Many political communication studies have focused on how rumours change public opinion. The results have been consistently found to confirm the importance of gossip in shaping public opinion: when someone tells you that certain facts are lies, you are likely to believe them because you already think the same things (even if you don’t actually agree with them). Rumors have an especially strong influence on attitudes towards specific policies: it is far harder to persuade someone of something if they already believe it, rather than if they are open to alternative options. This means that the policy that you have already adopted may well cause your opponents to view you in a more favourable light.
These studies can be used to study how rumours change people’s attitudes and how social cognition is influenced by the veracity of gossip. In addition, it can be used to test and evaluate different myths (such as those regarding Santa Claus and aeroplanes) and to see how the spread of these rumors alters the likelihood that they will be believed by others. Finally, it can be used to study the impact of different types of rumors on the public. Overall, it can be used to understand the dynamics of rumor spreading, to identify the elements of truth in it and to study the ways in which we can counteract it.