Rumor is a current report, unsubstantiated or otherwise, that can influence people’s behavior. It is a form of social information that often affects large groups of people, including individuals and communities, for good or bad. Rumors are common in most societies and they can spread rapidly through many forms of communication, including social media.
When a group of individuals shares a rumor that influences their decisions and actions, this is called collective rumor. Rumor can lead to a variety of outcomes, ranging from the trivial (such as gossip) to the profound, such as crowd panic or the destruction of property. Various factors can affect a rumor’s accuracy, speed of transmission, and spread.
People often discuss rumors that are important to them, or that pertain to an outcome that is either positive or negative. Typically, the more important a rumor is, the more people tend to support it and pass it along. Some rumors may even have attitudinal effects, such as sullying a company’s reputation or fostering hatred toward another group (e.g., “Corporation x contributes to the Church of Satan”).
A rumor is most likely to be successful when it is both salient and credible. Salient rumor details include relative size, dramatic detail and movement, and familiar symbol. In an experiment where subjects heard a story, the first subject remembered about 12 details of the rumor; the second subject remembered about four; and the third person remembered two or less. This is a result of the sharpening, assimilation and primacy-recency effects.
However, a rumor can be inaccurate and/or fast, especially during the early stages of its propagation. This is because the initial story can be distorted in numerous ways as it moves through the social network. In addition, cognitive mechanisms, such as the narrowing of attention, memory limits and perceptual biases, reduce rumor accuracy. Motivational mechanisms, such as fact-finding and relationship-enhancement motives, also play a role.
Researchers have found that a rumor’s accuracy can be improved through several means, including enhancing the veracity of the information, attaching a link to evidence, and quoting an accessible source. In one study, the authors found that a rumor about an earthquake was verified more quickly in tweets with a hyperlink to proof than in tweets without such links.
While rumor has been around for centuries, modern research on rumor dates back to the 1902 work of the German psychologist William Stern, who experimented with a chain of subjects passing a story from mouth to ear without repeating or explaining it. His experiment was designed to examine the effects of these social and psychological processes on rumor. Stern’s work provided the basis for much of the current scholarly literature on rumor. In addition, the development of the Internet has made rumor easier to spread and more prevalent than ever before. As such, it is an important topic for social scientists and professionals in the fields of organizational communications, human relations and public relations.