What Is a Rumor?


A rumor is an unsubstantiated story that spreads from person to person in a community in the form of word-of-mouth or over the internet. Rumors are often false, but may also contain elements of truth. They are often influenced by the emotions of listeners, who interpret rumors according to their own biases and experiences. A rumor typically involves an event that is either controversial or implausible, and can have an impact on social and political issues. Examples of rumors include news of the death of a celebrity, or that a natural disaster has occurred.

The modern scholarly definition of a rumor dates back to the pioneering work by German social scientist William Stern in 1902. In his experiments, Stern had subjects tell stories to one another in chains that were shortened and changed each time the story was passed on. The result was a rumor that was different from the original statement by the end of the chain, and he showed that rumors were influenced by the participants’ motivations.

People are motivated to spread rumors for a variety of reasons, including relationship-enhancement, self-enhancement, and information seeking. The teller and listener both gain benefit from the act, and rumor-telling tends to occur in groups where people are familiar with each other. A rumor told for the purpose of relationship enhancement, such as “I heard that your university is excellent,” will improve the teller-listener relationship. Rumors told for the purpose of self-enhancement typically involve derogating other groups and therefore boosting one’s own group in contrast.

Rumors can also serve as a means of managing physical threat, such as warning people to evacuate a flood zone. They can also help people cope with psychological threats, by affording a sense of control over the threat through an interpretation or understanding of negative events, for example, rumors about the U.S. government blowing up levees in New Orleans or American soldiers using night vision goggles to spy on Iraqi women.

Studies of rumor have shown that the media, government departments, and parties should be responsible for releasing authoritative rumor-debunking statements. Social media platforms and netizens should repost this information so that it is widely disseminated.

A rumor-debunking model that integrates government agencies, the media, and social organizations would be effective during a crisis like the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The model should include continuous monitoring and rapid dissemination of information, and should integrate a mechanism that allows social organizations to identify rumors and contact their members to verify them before sharing or reposting them. It should also address the issue of middle-aged and elderly individuals, who are more likely to be the target of a rumor, as well as factors such as discrimination and media literacy. The models presented in this article should be further developed and tested to determine their effectiveness in practical applications.