Rumor involves unconfirmed information circulating among people endeavoring to make sense of ambiguous or potentially threatening situations. Rumors are distinguished from gossip by their emphasis on the transmission of a subject of public concern (rumor) and by their denial of personal gain (gossip). Rumors are also distinct from fact because rumors lack a foundation of evidence. The term rumor also differs from misinformation, disinformation and propaganda in that it does not describe deliberate attempts to distort or manipulate people’s understanding of the world around them.
The study of rumor has roots in the earliest days of social science, but has become increasingly important with the proliferation of media and the widespread use of social networking sites such as Twitter. The nature of rumors has been studied from a number of perspectives, including their origins, how they spread and their accuracy. Research on rumor has been conducted from both the sociological and communication perspective, and has examined issues such as the role of the grapevine, social cognition and diffusion of propaganda.
Rumors often begin with a kernel of truth, but they quickly expand and evolve as people share them, embellish them and change them in their own minds and in the minds of others. The evolution of a rumor can be illustrated with the famous Chinese whispers game where a single word is passed from one person to another until it becomes completely different from its original form.
It is difficult to know if the rumors we hear are true, but it is even harder to tell if we are hearing the truth when the rumors are being spread over the Internet. In an era of heightened political and social sensitivity, rumor is more common than ever before. In this context, rumor psychology is a rapidly growing area of inquiry that addresses the question “How do rumors start, how do they spread, and how can their veracity be verified?”
For example, researchers have investigated the dynamics of a rumour that said that rain in the aftermath of the 2011 Japan earthquake might contain harmful chemical substances. They looked at the distribution of tweets that reported the rumour and later tweets that corrected it. Their results showed that the appearance of corrections diminished the spread of the rumour.
There are many reasons why rumors are so popular. They may help us to manage a threat, such as a natural disaster, by preparing for it or warning people about its consequences. Rumors can also enhance people’s psychological sense of self by building up groups with whom they are associated or putting down other groups. They can also be used to satisfy people’s needs for power or attention by making them feel more informed.
Rumors have a powerful impact on people, but they can be frustrating to deal with because of their lack of verifiability. Nevertheless, they remain an important part of our social life and will continue to be so. Understanding how rumors start, spread and are corrected will help communicators develop effective strategies to counter them.