Rumor Threat


Rumor is a common element in communication. A rumor is unconfirmed information about an object, event or issue that circulates among people endeavoring to make sense of a situation that is ambiguous and/or potentially threatening. It can be a fabricated story or a piece of factual information, and it is generally of significant significance to its listeners but has no clear evidence of authenticity. It is the opposite of news, which is verified by a source and is generally intended to inform, influence, or persuade others. Our rumor threat framework draws on much of the foundational social science research in rumors to create the analytic categories, labeled “Dimensions” in Figure 1.

The word rumor has multiple definitions in different contexts, but all involve the sharing of unverified information about something important to people. It can also be used to describe how something is interpreted or disseminated, for example: “I heard that the woman who was slashed by a robber at Jonestown Mall last Saturday night is still in the hospital.” In the past, some scholars have distinguished between positive (pipe dream) and negative (bogie and wedge-driving) rumors.

While rumors are often dismissed as irrelevant, they provide an essential link between formal and informal information sources. They are critical to the management of the uncertainty inherent in any organization. Without access to rumor, managers will not be able to react quickly and effectively.

This is particularly true during a crisis, when rumor is the main conduit of information. During natural disasters, for example, rumors are vital to the survival of the population. They can help people manage physical threat by providing instructions for escape, for example: “Get out of town before the tsunami hits.” They can also offer a psychological sense of control over negative events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, by affording people the opportunity to share stories about their experiences, for example, by describing the eerie silence in their workplaces or their homes while colleagues are locked down at work.

Despite their lack of reliability, rumors are very powerful. They can spread rapidly, affecting large populations within a relatively short period of time. They can also be very difficult to stop, even when they are known to be false.

It is therefore imperative that organizations recognize the value of rumor and develop strategies for engaging with it, not dismissing it as unimportant or irrelevant. Our rumor threat framework provides an initial structure for doing so, by inviting communicators to recognize the potential information in rumors, and to understand how a dynamic relationship between rumors and official information can be built.

Researchers have identified a number of factors that influence rumor accuracy, including cognitive mechanisms, such as narrowing of attention, memory limits, and perceptual biases. Motivational factors, such as fact-finding and self-enhancement motives, also affect accuracy. In addition, transmission patterns and social network effects, such as serial transmission and interaction between teller and listener, can impact accuracy. For example, students who serially transmitted rumors in one study tended to transmit rumors that were more consistent with stereotypes than inconsistent.