A rumor is an unverified claim that circulates during times of uncertainty and threat. It often serves as a working hypothesis for sense making, predicting the future, or managing a perceived psychological or physical threat. Rumors can be spread for the purpose of self-enhancement, community enhancement, or as a tool to gain control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. The term is also used to describe gossip and urban legends. Rumors, gossip, and urban legends are distinct from other forms of informal human discourse, such as jokes and tidbits, in that they have a distinct narrative structure that entertains.
While rumors may be true or false, they are a common part of human life. In the era of social media, it has become even more difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction.
False information can cause real harm in the form of anxiety, distress, or even loss of life. It is the responsibility of journalists to identify and report rumors as quickly as possible in order to prevent misinformation from spreading. However, it is also a challenge to decide when to report a rumor and how to present it to the public in a clear manner.
The speed and magnitude of a rumor can be impacted by the source of the rumor, its community structure, and its debunking process. For example, a rumor is more likely to be believed when it comes from a trusted source that is known for accuracy. For instance, a Wall Street stockbroker will more likely believe a rumor about the death of a fellow broker if it came from the detective investigating the case than from an elderly busybody with no connection to the investigation. In addition, repeated hearings of a rumor can lead to increased belief in it. In a study of World War II prison inmates, soldiers who heard a rumor several times from other prisoners became more confident that the rumor was true than those who only heard it once. Moreover, the confidence level of a rumor can be influenced by group mechanisms such as conformity and culture.
When a rumor is debunked, it will usually slow down in its dissemination because individuals are more hesitant to pass on the information once they think it has been disproven. However, the debunking message must be shared widely in order to be effective.
To analyze this phenomenon, the authors analyzed archived discussions regarding the rumors of an earthquake in China and the United States. The discussion statements were coded as being prudent, apprehensive, authenticating, interrogative, providing information, believing, disbelieving, sense-making, or digressive.
The results indicate that there are three types of rumors: polarized, one-sided, and mixed networks. In the polarized network, the majority of people are either believers or disbelievers. In the one-sided network, most people are disbelievers but a small number of people are believers. In the mixed network, there are both polarized and one-sided communities. It is therefore important to consider community structures when designing a rumor control program.