Rumor in Emergency Situations

Rumor is a non-factual story that spreads rapidly from one person to another via word of mouth. It is often inaccurate and may cause anxiety or even panic in the community. Understanding how rumors spread and what makes them effective or harmful can help us better control them in situations of emergency.

Throughout history, rumor has been a powerful social tool used to spread news and create public perceptions of events that are not immediately available from official sources. People seek out information to help them cope with uncertainty and anxiety, and rumors are often a way of getting that information. The use of rumors as a communication channel has increased with the proliferation of the Internet. Rumors can be especially dangerous if they contain harmful information about a person or event.

A rumor is not necessarily true, but it has the potential to become a fact if it is repeated enough times. When a rumor is repeated, the details are modified each time it is told, and the overall message of the rumor can change significantly over time. The speed at which a rumor spreads is also critical to its impact. A rumor that is not believed can quickly die out, while a rumor that is widely believed can cause widespread panic.

The characteristics that make a rumor successful include uncertainty, novelty, emotional valence, and the ability to be passed from person to person. For example, during the 1950s Seattle windshield pitting epidemic, there was uncertainty about both the cause of the damage and the possible nuclear connection; the rumor had high emotional valence as a result of widespread fear about radiation; and it could be easily spread because people saw dings in their own cars.

In addition, the ability to be disseminated through multiple channels of distribution and to spread over a wide geographic area can increase a rumor’s effectiveness. A rumor can spread faster and further than the official statement of an emergency situation because it can be spread through social media, television, radio, telephone, and word of mouth.

Personality and mood are other important factors in a rumor’s success. Anxious personalities or individuals in an anxious situation are more likely to start and spread a rumor to relieve their tensions. Rumors are more credible if they are believable, and if the rumor is about something that is directly related to a person’s life, it is more likely to be believed.

Some people choose to ignore rumors that are harmful, figuring that if they are so false and hurtful then the rumor will eventually die out. This strategy can be effective, but it can also backfire if the rumor is about something involving your reputation or career. If the rumor is about you, it is best to respond quickly by showing that the rumor is untrue and then correcting it. A well-planned program to manage a rumor might involve trusted neutral intermediaries who investigate each rumor and report their findings in a timely manner. This would be most effective when the investigators were able to communicate that they were reporting only what they had determined to be accurate and did not wish to contribute to a sense of unfounded panic.