Why are rumors dangerous?

Why are rumors dangerous?

The first player whispers a message to the second, who whispers it to the third and etc. The last player is supposed to repeat the message correctly and we observe with how many distortions the message was transmitted. In most of the cases, it was changed and not transmitted rightly. The last player «believes» an information which went through the spectrum of 10, 46, 78 or 100 (…) players. Each player listened to the information but transformed it unconsciously into his or her own perception and dispositions.

It is not only a game, but it can also become a reality. Each of us has a very special mindset, which connects pieces of information we hear or we see, with what we already acknowledged. This mindset depends of course on the culture we come from and of the one we live in. That is how whispers are transformed into rumors. Rumors are fed from every single thing they are surrounded by, either it is positive or negative. This phenomenon can be studied under many angles: sociology, psychology, narrative theory, marketing, communication, advertisement, internal communication.

But the phenomenon is also a tool to study sociology, history, and ethnography because it is a mass media. Because it is a way to connect people socially. Because it reinforces the social connection inside of a society. A rumor can travel through different means: paper, press, e-mails, tweets, internet, social media, but also in a word of mouth. So how is a rumor created? Why and how is it spread or not? What are the dangers? In Etymology, «Rumor» means «noise, clamor, common talk, hearsay, popular opinion» but the meaning changed along of the centuries. In the 13 Century, for example, we used the word more to refer to quarrels. During and after the Second World War, the word took its actual meaning: false information was produced and diffused from the other side in order to demoralize opposed soldiers.

What does a rumor need to exist? First of all, most of the rumors appear when there is a lack of information or in a situation of crisis. It needs to be realistic enough to be believed. A real story has often been an inspiration to a rumored release. The one who distributes, the one who receives, transforms and transmits often uses their own representations of the reality to create, re-create and spread the story. A rumor is fed by each person’s intellectual resources. For example, in a community where we use to believe that people with dreadlocks and colorful clothes plants cannabis and take drugs, a stereotype will be done fast and the rumor will be spread because this is already a kind of collective acceptance. If the first message would be «This person likes agriculture and wears a flowered shirt», the last one that went through many mouths could be «This person has a garden and plants suspicious species».

The information is under interpreted. We can even call it an Amalgam. A style or a way of life is associated with an activity, which will create a rumor and thus define the person, who does not necessarily deserves it. But it is easy to believe this kind of information because it is hard to verify, and already almost accepted as a valid statement. What is the biggest difference between information and rumors? Information is considered to be true and has an author and one or many sources, which can be quoted. A rumor is a message that someone heard from someone who heard from someone, and whose source is unidentified.

Because of this unidentified first emitter, the rumor monger often uses the trope of language like «While we are just between ourselves…», « the whole city know that…», or « It is said that…»… But the rumor is powerful because it follows the following schema: Rumor = Importance + Ambiguity. It reveals unusual and important messages. It is ambiguous because, as already mentioned, not verifiable, but strongly believed because of its capacity to reveal structured and plausible answers to common opinion, including facts which partly certify it. Thus, with the already shared representations, whispers are transformed into falsified information.

A rumor is often spread through a personal and close network. This chain diffusion of the message creates some distortions, even within a community. This chain is unhealthy because it enables prejudices and stereotypes to be fed and confirmed within a community. In this case, we can actually consider the phenomenon as an «echo chamber». When information, beliefs and shared representations are amplified and communicated repeatedly through a community, they are reinforced. Popular misconceptions become crystallized because of part of one bubble, which is filtered by the people feeding it. To summarize, the information coming to oneself’s is more or less influenced by his or her already existing mindset and social network, either online or offline. Rumors is also a way to strengthen an idea a group of persons, an activity, an event.  So there is a necessity to keep our eyes and ears open and stay resilient about what we hear and approve. Keeping a critical mind is important, in order to not harm someone, with false statements. Be careful of what you hear, what you see, what you repeat, and what you believe, in order to not spread fake news and rumors which could be harmful to the persons concerned. Rumors contribute to a society of hate and judgment. When you hear a message, analyze it, its source, its emitter, its plausibility, deconstruct your pre-existing prejudices and discuss it.

Elise Giroud 

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