Rumor and Its Effects

Rumor is an unsubstantiated story that spreads from person to person by word of mouth, usually without any evidence. It is often a mix of truth and falsehood. Rumors can affect crowd behavior for good or for ill. For example, a rumor about an upcoming natural disaster might cause people to evacuate their homes. Other rumors may provoke riots.

Researchers have studied rumor from different perspectives, including psychology, sociology and communication studies. Some early studies focused on the role of rumor in wartime and other crisis situations. More recent studies use social media to collect data about rumor spreading and its consequences.

Rumors can be created by people who are anxious, either because of their personality or their situation. People with an anxious personality or who are in anxiety-lifting situations are more likely to create rumors to relieve their feelings of insecurity. Other factors that influence rumor creation include information importance and ambiguity. Rumors that are highly relevant to a person’s life and those that contain a lot of ambiguity tend to have more credibility than rumors about trivial things or things that are not well understood.

The popularity of the Internet has made it easy for rumors to spread. When someone says something that sounds interesting, it is easy for others to share the information with their friends and family members through email, text messaging and on social networking websites. Some rumors are very serious, while others are playful. It is important for people to understand that a rumor can have significant consequences, even though the rumor might not be true.

Although it is not always possible to tell the difference between a true and a rumor, most experts agree that a rumor is one that is spread by word of mouth and has not been confirmed as factual. For example, students might hear teachers discussing the possibility of an early dismissal before it actually occurs, and this would be considered a rumor until the school confirms it.

In a study that examined the effects of a rumor, psychologists asked one subject to pass on a story to another subject in their classroom. Then they measured how many details each person remembered. The results showed that the first subject remembered about 12 details, but when subject 2 heard the rumor, they only remembered about four. This is an example of a rumor that was “sharpened” by the process of repetition.

Researchers studying rumors in social media have used Twitter as their data collection tool. For instance, Takayasu et al. studied the spread of a rumor following the 2011 Japan earthquake that claimed rain could contain harmful chemicals. They looked at retweets of early tweets that reported the rumor and later tweets that debunked it. They found that when a rumor is debunked, the number of messages denying the rumor increases but does not always exceed the number of messages supporting it. The reason for this is that a number of skeptical users emerge after the rumor is resolved.