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Rumors in Social Science

A rumor, a word derived from the Latin verb rubeus, meaning “to rust”. In the English language, a rumor means “a false or misleading report of facts, regarded as worthless or useless”. In the Australian language, a rumor is described as “fabricated stories, often malicious, that are circulated as part of an ongoing malicious campaign to harm another”. In the context of law, a rumor may be described as “a statement of fact which is not true”.

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Rumors in Social Science

A rumor, a word derived from the Latin verb rubeus, meaning “to rust}”. In the English language, a rumor means “a false or misleading report of facts, regarded as worthless or useless”. In the Australian language, a rumor is described as “fabricated stories, often malicious, that are circulated as part of an ongoing malicious campaign to harm another”. In the context of law, a rumor may be described as “a statement of fact which is not true”.

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Allport, in his classic work The Psychology of Rumors, identifies four types of rumors: (a) the truthful rumor; (b) the doubtful rumor; (c) the false rumor; and (d) the deliberate and unwarranted rumor. According to Allport, these types differ in their effects on persons’ thoughts and emotions because of their varying degree of truthfulness. For instance, the truthful rumor has the least harmful effects on persons because it is not based on any facts and is therefore more likely to be believed. Conversely, the doubtful rumor is the most dangerous type of rumor because it is almost always based on some sort of falsification or distortion. In addition, a false rumor can cause damage to a person’s reputation at a minimum when the damage is done through the news media. However, a person who deliberately and repeatedly falsifies information can cause real and severe damage.

Allport distinguishes the types of rumors in two terms: serial transmission and gossip. He claimed that a rumor could be either a serial transmission or a gossip. A serial transmission is a constant rumor that is transmitted through channels with the same frequency as the original rumor. For example, rumors that occur in the workplace are often considered serial transmissions and rumors that occur outside the workplace are often considered a gossip.

Allport’s definition of a rumor is therefore a way of classifying and predicting social situations, especially those which occur in the workplace or in public. Rumors have powerful social effects on individuals because they prompt individuals to act on what they perceive as the correct response or interpretation. Rumors which have a concrete chance of being false are often not seriously considered as they pass over without comment. On the other hand, rumours that have very little chance of being false are given a great deal of attention as they are perceived as being true. In Allport’s view, the key to success in psychological research is to use a mix of falsification and misinterpretation in order to study both the direct and indirect effects of rumour on individuals.

Allport’s method of categorizing rumors is based on the knowledge that rumours can be either a propagandist tool or a useful device for problem solving. Propaganda is designed to promote an opinion, whereas problem solving is a form of informal networks which allow people to find creative solutions to their problems. By studying rumour from this perspective, Allport was able to draw the conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of truth that creates the problem, but rather that there are certain types of communication that create certain kinds of perceptions and, by using this understanding, problem solving can take place.

Propaganda is the most destructive of all the forms of rumor and it was also the cause of much of the destruction during World War Two. The phrase “propaganda is the tool of the victor” comes to mind as it explains the importance of communicating with the enemy, broadcasting messages to civilian and military targets that will aid them in their fight against the enemy. Allport concludes that in the case of rumor, the most important element is to understand how it starts, develops and ultimately ends up in the form of the rumour.