Rumor vs. fact


How to fight a rumor

Stopping rumors means understanding not why they’re ugly, but why they’re necessary

By Jesse Singal October 12, 2008

FOR ANYONE WHO has ever worried about the power of a vicious rumor, Barack Obama’s strategy over the summer must have seemed almost bizarre. Buffeted by rumors about his religion, his upbringing, and controversial statements made by his wife, Obama launched Fight the Smears, a website that lists every well-traveled false rumor about the candidate, alongside rebuttals and explanations for how the rumors arose.

Fighting rumors by publicizing them in vivid, high-profile locations is, to say the least, a surprising tactic. It’s hard to imagine someone victimized by workplace rumors summarizing them and posting them on the lunchroom wall. The conventional wisdom about rumors is to take the high road and not respond. When John McCain, during the 2000 Republican primaries, was plagued with rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate child, for the most part he opted not to engage with them at all. Why would anyone want to broadcast negative claims about themselves?

And yet new research into the science of rumors suggests Obama’s approach may be a sounder strategy – and the reasons why it makes sense suggest that we misunderstand both how rumors work and why they exist.

By using the tools of evolutionary theory and new approaches to mathematical modeling, researchers are drawing a clearer picture of how and why rumors spread. As they do, they are finding that far from being merely idle or malicious gossip, rumor is deeply entwined with our history as a species. It serves some basic social purposes and provides a valuable window on not just what people talk to each other about, but why.

Rumors, it turns out, are driven by real curiosity and the desire to know more information. Even negative rumors aren’t just scurrilous or prurient – they often serve as glue for people’s social networks. And although it seems counterintuitive, these facts about rumor suggest that, often, the best way to help stem a rumor is to spread it. The idea of “not dignifying a rumor with a response” reflects a deep misunderstanding of what rumors are, how they are fueled, and what purposes they serve in society.

McCain’s approach in this election seems more in tune with this theory. With rumors circulating in the blogosphere that Sarah Palin’s youngest baby might actually have been her daughter’s child, the campaign didn’t turn the other cheek: It released a statement from the Palin family that Bristol really was pregnant. The strategy worked. The other rumor was squelched.

Rumor has been around as long as human civilization, and for much of that time has been frowned upon. The Bible has some stern words for those who spread rumors: “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor,” the Book of Proverbs reads, “but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” Rumors have long been seen as at best trivial, and at worst vicious and immoral.


~ by bilalbadry on March 6, 2009.

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