Rumor is a false story that spreads from person to person in a manner similar to the spread of communicable diseases. It can affect a crowd, both for good or bad, and has implications for the economy and society. While some rumors are accurate, many do not and can lead to panic and hysteria. In modern societies, rumor has become more common than ever, because of the ease with which information can be disseminated through the internet and social networking sites. The ubiquity of rumor has brought new challenges in the verification of information and the prevention of harmful rumors.
Research has shown that a number of variables influence the creation and transmission of rumor. These include anxiety (situational and personal), ambiguity, credibility and the importance of the rumor. People are more likely to share and spread a rumor about something that they are concerned about or that is important to them. Rumors that are based on ambiguous events or information can easily be misinterpreted and distorted by people who hear them. The credibility of a rumor determines how quickly it spreads.
Some rumors are deemed important enough to be reported in the press, while others are not. It is important to determine whether a rumor meets this criteria in order to avoid unnecessarily alarming the public or causing panic. This is an especially important consideration when the rumor involves a potentially dangerous situation or event such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, terrorism or war.
A rumor is often considered to be the opposite of gossip because it is supposed to be about important, public issues while gossip is usually about private, trivial matters. However, rumor and gossip are not entirely different, since both can be inaccurate and malicious in intent.
Despite their negative effects, rumors do serve a purpose. They can help people manage a threat to their physical safety, for example, by warning them of an impending disaster (“A tsunami is coming!”) or by providing them with a psychological sense of control over the situation (“Corporation x donates to the Church of Satan”). Rumors can also contribute to attitudinal outcomes, such as sullying a company’s reputation (“The radiology department is being downsized”) or fostering hatred toward an ethnic group (“Ethnic Group y welcomed the World Trade Center bombings”).
Researchers have examined how rumors are discussed and spread in various cultures. They have found that a four-stage pattern of rumor discussion occurs: a rumor is introduced for discussion, then information is volunteered and discussed, the rumor is resolving and finally the rumor is spreading or interest is drawn. They have also observed that the frequency of a rumor depends on how much credibility it has, how relevant it is to people’s lives and how easy it is to communicate. This information has implications for how individuals respond to rumors and how organizations should deal with them.