Rumor and Its Cultural Implications

Rumor can be a dangerous and misleading piece of information. It can damage a person’s reputation and impact the trust that he or she has with others. It can also be harmful to public health and even lead to societal collapse if it goes unchallenged. Despite its many negative effects, rumor is also an important and natural human phenomenon. As such, analyzing the dynamics of rumors can provide valuable insights into the society in which we live.

The study of rumors has long been an area of intense interest. Scholars have classified rumors in various ways, including by their origin (confirmed vs. denied), by their source, by the nature of the rumor-generating process, by the social or cultural implications of rumors, and so on. However, one approach that has been missing is a type of analysis focused on the cultural dimension of rumor.

A culturally driven rumor analysis could help to fill this gap in our understanding of rumors, as it would allow us to understand the implications and contexts of rumor in a more holistic way. Using this framework, it may be possible to create more effective strategies for responding to rumors in a timely and responsible manner.

Historically, researchers have defined rumors as unverified stories or propositions for belief that spread from person to person through informal channels. Such rumors emerge during crises and stressful events as people attempt to make sense of ambiguous, evolving information, especially when official information is delayed. This definition of rumor has yielded several fundamental insights.

It suggests that rumors often involve the social and cultural context in which they occur, as well as the beliefs and motivations of the individuals who start them. For example, a rumor that ‘If you stare into the dark, a ghost will come and kill you’ shows a negative social attitude towards darkness, while the rumor that ‘WhatsApp conversations and Skype calls are monitored by America’ reflects a desire to protect privacy.

Furthermore, rumors are influenced by the level of anxiety involved, which can be a function of personality and situational factors. Individuals who are more anxious in general, or who are in an anxiety-lifting situation, are more likely to create and spread rumors. Finally, rumors are more likely to be retweeted and shared when they have some degree of salience or relevance (e.g., that a hospital employee committed suicide).

Finally, the research on rumors has found that the initiation of a rumor is often a deliberate act. Those who initiate a rumor use—whether intentionally or spontaneously—certain psychological strategies (see Table 2). These are designed to increase the likelihood that their rumor will be believed, and will influence the community’s response. Such research has also demonstrated that a debunking message can be effective at curbing a rumor’s spread when it is delivered early, before its credibility is damaged.