Rumor is a type of unsubstantiated report that spreads among people in a community through word of mouth. It can have a powerful effect on crowd behavior, often for good but occasionally for bad, such as a riot.
Modern scholarly research on rumors dates back to the pioneering work of the German social scientist William Stern. He conducted an experiment that showed subjects who repeated a rumor to each other became more and more absorbed with it. They also forgot details, added new ones, and sharpened or lowered the significance of the information. This process is called “levelling.”
The word rumor is related to the Old English words ruh and rouh, meaning noise or clamor. It has also been connected to the Latin word ravus, which meant hoarse or harsh voices. The sense of “unsubstantiated report, gossip, hearsay” dates back to the late 14th century.
One of the best known rumors that caused a great deal of harm was the story about a woman who claimed to have been raped by her employer at the Department of Defense. This rumor, which was circulated worldwide, led to a large number of women seeking out sexual counseling and legal action.
In the modern era, rumors can be spread with extraordinary speed through email, text messages and social networks. Because of this, they can have a devastating impact on an individual’s reputation and career. In addition, a rumor can affect the public perception of an entire corporation or government agency.
Many rumors are not about a specific person or event but about a general subject. They can be about politics, celebrities, sports and so on. Some rumors are about a particular product or service. For example, the rumor that a certain food company was making a unhealthy product could cause the company to lose customer confidence and go bankrupt.
When a rumor goes viral, it is usually because it has been shared by someone who has a large number of followers on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. This can make the rumor seem more credible. This is why it is important not to share unverified claims on social media sites.
Despite the fact that communication has changed dramatically since party-line telephone calls and black-and-white television, the study of rumors holds critical insights for the digital era. In fact, the framework that we outline here may help us better resist the temptation to simply dismiss rumors as fake news or misinformation. It also invites us to consider the role that rumors play within our communities, an approach that probably offers a more productive way of responding to a rumor than simply refuting it. We think that the framework we outline here will make it possible for communicators to recognize the potential information in a rumor, acknowledge their own uncertainty about it, and build relationships of trust with their audiences. This will be particularly valuable when official sources are incentivized to hide information about pollution or other problems.