Rumors are often a form of gossip, but they can also hurt the reputation of a celebrity, politician or place of business. While rumors can have the power to make or break a reputation, they can also spread fast and be difficult to stop. They can be based on jealousy, anger, disappointment or just pure falsehoods. Rumors have been around for a long time, but they have become even more prevalent with the advent of social media. People can easily post and share information about their favorite celebrities, politicians or places of business with just one click of the mouse.
Researchers define a rumor as an unverified story that spreads through informal channels. The emergence of rumors is especially common during crises and stressful events. They can be used to help people make sense of ambiguous or evolving information, especially when official sources are slow to provide updates. Despite their negative connotations, rumors can be valuable in the face of an uncertain situation. They can be used to express emotions, as well as to support a cause or help relieve anxiety. They can also be useful in identifying the causes of an event, such as finding out about a gas leak or the COVID-19 pandemic from a Twitter feed.
As with other forms of communication, the way a rumor is presented affects its effectiveness. A rumor can have a high level of credibility if it is repeated and seems to come from an authentic source, such as a news outlet or an individual. Other factors that can influence a rumor’s credibility include the fact that it is a new development, whether it appears to be from an authoritative source and the degree to which it matches previous rumors.
A recent study by Rooks, Tazelaar and Snijders analyzed rumour timelines in the Twitter feeds of users. They identified a pattern wherein a rumour that has been confirmed to be true has a decrease in support, and the number of messages denying it increases. The increase in denying messages does not necessarily mean that they outnumber the supporting ones, but it does suggest that more skeptical users emerge to rebut the rumour after it is resolved.
While the authors’ study focused on a specific rumour, it provides valuable insights into the nature of rumours in general. The analysis shows that a rumour can become highly supported by an individual if it is accompanied by a resolving tweet, and also that there is a tendency to support a rumour without sufficient evidence. Evidentiality, as indicated by the color of a rumour, can vary from claiming to have first-hand experience, quoting an authentic source or using a picture in the tweet. This is not an exhaustive list of possible types of evidence, but it suggests that the best way to combat a rumour might be by providing counter-evidence to it. This might deprive rumours of their credibility and slow down their propagation, while promoting more accurate reporting.