Rumor As a Social Phenomenon

Rumor is a powerful and ubiquitous social phenomenon, attracting attention, generating emotion, inciting involvement and influencing attitudes and actions. It has long been a subject of interest to scholars who have studied it under a variety of labels: misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and so on. Regardless of the label, however, there is no doubt that rumor has considerable influence on individuals and society as a whole.

The study of rumors dates back to the early 1900s with the work of William Stern who designed an experiment in which students passed a story from mouth to ear without repeating or explaining it. He found that the story was shortened and changed as it was passed along, and that people were more likely to pass on a rumor that they believed in. Stern’s experiment and other research since then has shown that rumor is a socially constructed concept, in which the informational content of the rumor influences whether it will be propagated and how.

A variety of factors have been found to promote rumor transmission, including uncertainty about the status of a situation, arousal and fear, and the availability of anecdotes or informational supports. Rumors can also be propelled by a desire to make sense of an ambiguous situation or to adapt to perceived or actual threats. Rumors can play a critical role in managing threat to physical well-being, such as by providing warnings about the potential effects of a natural disaster (“Hey, the tsunami’s coming!”), or to psychological self-esteem, for example by affording a psychological sense of control over a negative event by derogating a group with which one does not identify (“The Israeli government is behind this terrorist attack!”).

Despite their pervasiveness, rumor is an elusive concept to pin down. In this context, we argue that the framework presented here is useful for addressing some of the challenges associated with rumor research: that there is not one definition of rumor that adequately encompasses its range of functions and functions. Rather, we propose that practitioners first consider the role that a particular rumor plays within a community, and then address any concerns about its accuracy and harmfulness.

To do so, we analyzed archived discussions about a particular rumor in an online discussion forum. Statements in each rumor discussion were coded for being prudent, apprehensive, authenticating, providing information, belief, sense-making, digressive, or uncodable. We then grouped these statements into four distinct rumor discussion patterns, which we call the rumor matrix.

We discuss the implications of our results for the study of rumor, and for the design of e-government services. Our analysis suggests that a rumor matrix can be used as a tool to help authorities understand how certain types of rumors are being circulated, and how they might be countered. We conclude that a rumor matrix might be particularly useful during times of crisis when the threat to public health and safety is high.