Rumor is a piece of unconfirmed information that circulates among persons endeavoring to make sense of an ambiguous or potentially threatening situation. Unlike news, which is generally considered to be factual and of high importance, a rumor is often suspect due to its uncertain foundation.
In some cases rumors prove to be true, like when everyone overhears that school is closing early and word spreads via social media. However, most rumors remain unverified and simply pass from one person to another in an attempt to understand their environment, predict what might happen, or make sense of a dreaded negative event. Several variables have been associated with rumor transmission including anxiety (situational and personality), ambiguity, and information importance.
Interestingly, rumors are also known to have consequences for individuals and organizations. Whether it is reducing sales (e.g., a rumor that a soft drink company is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and puts a chemical in their soda that makes black men sterile) or fomenting a riot (e.g., rumors that police impaled a Native Australian while chasing him on his bicycle led to widespread rioting in Sydney), rumor can have serious effects. Negative rumors, in particular, have been shown to decrease organizational morale and trust in management.
A rumor can also have social and cultural impacts, such as causing individuals to avoid certain places or activities (e.g., a rash of unsubstantiated rumors that khat leaves could carry coronavirus caused some communities to ban their use). In addition, a rumor can also foster noninvolvement in disaster relief efforts (e.g., rumors that the water flooding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was toxic kept many workers from volunteering to assist in recovery efforts).
While these examples illustrate how a rumor can have wide-reaching consequences, research has also shown that the way a rumor is shared can influence its accuracy and propagation. In order to better understand these mechanisms, researchers have conducted a number of experiments on rumor and its transmission.
These experiments, referred to as “rumor studies,” involve experimental manipulations such as varying the information available to participants and examining their responses to the rumor. Moreover, these studies have examined the impact of different forms of social media on rumor, including how it is disseminated by Twitter users. One interesting finding is that tweets that support a rumor while it is still unverified are retweeted significantly more than tweets that are retweeted when the rumour is later proven to be either true or false. This finding is important because it suggests that rumours may be more likely to be passed along if they are supported by evidence, even if the evidence is faulty or incomplete. This is consistent with other social science research that has found that people are more likely to share a story with others if it matches their preconceived notions. The diagram below shows timelines for all of the rumours collected and annotated by journalists. Rumours that remain unverified are displayed in orange, while rumours that are later found to be true or false are depicted as green and red respectively.