Rumor is unconfirmed information that circulates among persons endeavoring to make sense of a situation that is ambiguous or potentially threatening. It differs from news in that it is of current or topical interest and usually has a high degree of emotional valence. It also differs from gossip in that it has a more explicit desire to be believed, even if the content is false.
When a rumor reaches a critical mass, it can cause panic in the population. For example, the rumor about an explosion of a chemical plant in one of China’s provinces caused people to rush into the streets, leading to several deaths. In such a crisis, it is necessary to take effective measures to suppress the spread of rumors.
The study of rumor is an important branch of social science. Researchers have identified a number of factors that affect its transmission and influence its accuracy. These include: the existence of formal channels of communication, sociologist Tomatsu Shibutani’s idea that informal communications surge in the absence of timely official information, and work done by researchers Gordon Allport and Leo Postman in 1946 that suggested that a rumor’s strength is proportional to its significance to the listener multiplied by the ambiguity of the evidence supporting it.
However, these factors do not explain why some rumors are more effective than others in spreading. For instance, the rumor about McDonald’s being connected to human rights violations was more effective than other rumors because it focused on people’s deep concern and anger over the violation of their fundamental rights. The rumor was also repeated so many times that it became a familiar and accepted fact, and therefore, it was easier to believe.
Other factors that affect a rumor’s success are: the ability of the listener to distinguish between different sources, the presence of an authority figure who can attest to the truth of a rumor, and the amount of detail contained in a rumor. The ability to distinguish between different sources is crucial in highly polarized environments, as studies by Adam Berinsky and Brendan Nyhan have shown. The presence of an authority figure increases the likelihood of a rumor being correct, while detailed rumors are more likely to be inaccurate.
It is necessary to improve the way we govern rumor in emergencies, especially in online communication. For example, relevant departments should verify and publish the authenticity of a suspected rumor in real time to prevent the spread of fake information. Another important factor in rumor governance is the severity of punishment measures. Research has demonstrated that the celerity of punishment measures is effective in rumor recognition behavior. This suggests that relevant departments should further increase the level of punishment to enhance the deterrent effect and serve as a warning to society. In addition, the speed of information transmission in online communication can help to regulate rumor. As a result, online rumor control is more important than ever before.