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Main article: Gossip

A rumour or rumor (see spelling differences), is often viewed as "an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern" (33)[1] However, a review of the research on rumor conducted by Pendleton in 1998 found that research across sociology, psychology, and communication studies had widely varying definitions of rumor.[2] Thus, rumor is a concept that lacks a particular definition in the social sciences. But most theories agree that rumor involves some kind of a statement whose veracity is not quickly or ever confirmed. In addition, some scholars have identified rumor as a subset of propaganda, the latter another notoriously difficult concept to define. A pioneer of propaganda studies, Harold Lasswell defined propaganda in 1927 as referring "solely to the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, to speak more concretely and less accurately, by stories, rumors, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication" (1927:9).[3] Rumors are also often discussed with regard to "misinformation" and "disinformation" (the former often seen as simply false and the latter seen as deliberately false, though usually from a government source given to the media or a foreign government).[4] Rumors thus have often been viewed as particular forms of other communication concepts.

Psychology of Rumour (1902)[edit | edit source]

French and German social science research on rumour locates the modern scholarly definition of it the pioneering work of the German Louis William Stern in 1902.[5] Stern experimented on rumour involving a "chain of subjects" who passed a story from "mouth to ear" without the right to repeat or explain it. He found that the story was shortened and changed by the time it reached the end of the chain. His student was another pioneer in the field, Gordon Allport.

Psychology of Rumour: Three Types (1944)[edit | edit source]

"A Psychology of Rumor" was published by Robert Knapp in 1944, in which he reports on his analysis of over one thousand rumors during World War II that were printed in the Boston Herald's "Rumor Clinic" Column. He defines rumour as

a proposition for belief of topical reference disseminated without official verification. So formidably defined, rumour is but a special case of informal social communications, including myth, legend, and current humour. From myth and legend it is distinguished by its emphasis on the topical. Where humour is designed to provoke laughter, rumour begs for belief.


Knapp identified three basic characteristics that apply to rumour: 1. they're transmitted by word of mouth; 2. they provide "information" about a "person, happening, or condition"; and 3. they express and gratify "the emotional needs of the community." Crucial to this definition and its characteristics is the emphasis on transmission (word of mouth, which then was heard and reported in the newspaper); on content ("topical" means that it can somehow be distinguished from trivial and private subjects--its domain is public issues); and on reception ("emotional needs of the community" suggests that though it is received by an individual from an individual, it is not comprehended in individual but community or social terms).

Based on his study of the newspaper column, Knapp divided those rumours into three types:

1. Pipe dream rumours: reflect public desires and wished-for outcomes.(eg. Japan's oil reserves were low and thus WW II would soon end.)

2. Bogie or fear rumours reflect feared outcomes.(eg. An enemy surprise attack is imminent).

3. Wedge-driving rumours intend to undermine group loyalty or interpersonal relations (eg. American Catholics were seeking to avoid the draft; German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans were not loyal to the American side).

Knapp also found that negative rumours were more likely to be disseminated than positive rumors. These types also differentiate between positive (pipe dream)and negative (bogie and wedge-driving) rumours.

Psychology of Rumor (1947)[edit | edit source]

In the 1947 study, Psychology of Rumor, Gordon Allport and Joseph Postman concluded that, "as rumor travels it [...] grows shorter, more concise, more easily grasped and told."[7] This conclusion was based on a test of message diffusion between persons, which found that about 70% of details in a message were lost in the first 5-6 mouth-to-mouth transmissions[7].

In the experiment, a test subject was shown an illustration and given time to look it over. They were then asked to describe the scene from memory to a second test subject. This second test subject was then asked to describe the scene to a third, and so forth and so on. Each person’s reproduction was recorded. This process was repeated with different illustrations with very different settings and contents.

Allport and Postman used three terms to describe the movement of rumor. They are: leveling, sharpening, and assimilation. Leveling refers to the loss of detail during the transmission process; sharpening to the selection of certain details of which to transmit; and assimilation to a distortion in the transmission of information as a result of subconscious motivations.

Assimilation was observed when test subjects described the illustrations as they ought to be but not as they actually were. For example, in an illustration depicting a battle-scene, test subjects often incorrectly reported an ambulance truck in the background of the illustration as carrying “medical supplies,” when, in fact, it was clearly carrying boxes marked “TNT (102).”

Rumor as Social Cognition (2004)[edit | edit source]

In 2004 Prashant Bordia and Nicholas DiFonzo published their Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor As Social Cognition and found that rumor transmission is probably reflective of a "collective explanation process." (35)[8]. This conclusion was based on an analysis of archived message board discussions in which the statements were coded and analyzed. It was found that 29.4% (the majority) of statements within these discussions could be coded as “sensemaking” statements, which involved, “[...]attempts at solving a problem.” (42)[8] It was noted that the rest of the discussion was constructed around these statements, further reinforcing the idea of collective problem solving. The researchers also found that each rumor went through a four-stage pattern of development in which a rumor was introduced for discussion, information was volunteered and discussed, and finally a resolution was drawn or interest was lost (48)[8].

For the study, archived discussions concerning rumors on the Internet and other computer networks such as BITnet were retrieved. As a rule, each discussion had a minimum of five statements posted over a period of at least two days. The statements were then coded as being one of the following: prudent, apprehensive, authenticating, interrogatory, providing information, belief, disbelief, sensemaking, digressive, or uncodable. Each rumor discussion was then analyzed based on this coding system. A similar coding system based on statistical analysis was applied to each discussion as a whole, and the aforementioned four-stage pattern of rumor discussion emerged.

Rumor as Political Communication Strategy (2006)[edit | edit source]

In the past, much research on rumor came from psychological approaches (as the discussion of Allport and DiFonzio demonstrates above). The focus was especially on how statements of questionable veracity (absolutely false to the ears of some listeners)circulated orally from person to person. Less work had been done until recently on how different forms of media and particular cultural-historical conditions may facilitate a rumor's diffusion. The internet's recent appearance as a new media technology has shown ever new possibilities for the fast diffusion of rumor, as the debunking sites such as,, and demonstrate. Nor had previous research taken into consideration the particular form or style of deliberately chosen rumors for political purposes in particular circumstances (even though significant attention to the power of rumor for mass-media-diffused war propaganda has been in vogue since WWI; see Lasswell 1927).[9] In 2006, Jayson Harsin[10] [11] introduced the concept of the "rumor bomb" as a response to the widespread empirical phenomenon of rumoresque communication in contemporary relations between media and politics, especially within the complex convergence of multiple forms of media, from cell phones and internet, to radio, TV, and print. Harsin starts with the widespread definition of rumor as a claim whose truthfulness is in doubt and which often has no clear source even if its ideological or partisan origins and intents are clear. He then treats it as a particular rhetorical strategy in current contexts of media and politics in many societies. For Harsin a "rumor bomb" extends the definition of rumor into a political communication concept with the following features:

1. A crisis of verification. A crisis of verification is perhaps the most salient and politically dangerous aspect of rumour. Berenson (1952) defines rumour as a kind of persuasive message involving a proposition that lacks 'secure standards of evidence' (Pendleton 1998).[12]

2. A context of public uncertainty or anxiety about a political group, figure, or cause, which the rumor bomb overcomes or transfers onto an opponent.

3. A clearly partisan even if an anonymous source (eg. "an unnamed advisor to the president"), which seeks to profit politically from the rumor bomb’s diffusion.

4. A rapid diffusion via highly developed electronically mediated societies where news travels fast.

In addition, Harsin locates the "rumor bomb" within other communication genres,such as disinformation (intentional false information) and propaganda,as rumor has been viewed by others. However, he distinguishes it from these concepts as well, since disinformation is often too associated with government, and propaganda is a widely varying concept used to describe attempts to control opinion without regard for ethics and accuracy of statement. Similarly, "spin" is a generic term for strategic political communication that attempts to frame or re-frame an event or a statement in a way that is politically profitable for one side and detrimental to another, though at its core it may simply be a red herring (Bennett 2003, p. 130).[13] In addition, a "smear campaign" is a term that loosely means a coordinated effort to attack a person's character. Unlike a "smear campaign," rumor bombs need not be about discrediting a person (as is the case for example in claims about Iraq and 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction moved to Syria). Spin refers too specifically to an event and its re-framing. Rumor bombs may seek to produce events themselves.

A rumor bomb can be seen as having some characteristics of these general concepts, but rumor bombs happen in very particular cultural and historical conditions. They are not about mouth-to-ear interpersonal rumors as much rumor research has been interested in. They begin in a rapport between deliberate "disinformers" and media, whether TV news,talk shows, newspapers, radio, or internet. They then circulate across these media, perhaps but not necessarily resulting in interpersonal mouth-to-ear rumor diffusion. Harsin wants to distinguish the rumor bomb from other more general concepts of rumor by emphasizing changes in politics, media technology, and culture. According to Harsin, rumor in politics has always existed, but recent changes have created an environment ripe for a new kind of political rumor: a new media "convergence culture" where information produced on the internet can influence the production of media content in other forms;new media technologies and business values that emphasize speed and circulation that combine with entertainment values in news, political marketing, and public craving of tabloid news that mirrors other entertainment genres.[14]

Rumors of affairs, of "weapons of mass destruction" and their alleged removal to other countries[15]"John Kerry is French,"[16] Obama is a muslim, John McCain had an illegitimate black child[17]--all of these involve statements whose veracity is in question or are simply false. Others are statements whose ambiguous nature makes them potentially appealing to different audiences who may interpret them in particular ways and circulate them. Harsin builds on rumor research that has emphasized social cognition and diffusion of propaganda. He extends Prashant and Difonzio's work in particular, since they attempt to distinguish rumor from gossip, in that rumor is supposedly about public issues and gossip is about private, trivial things. The emergence of infotainment and tabloidization in especially American and British news has broken that distinction, since politics is now just as much about bringing the private into the public view, as was clear with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Peterson, Warren; Gist, Noel (September (1951)), "Rumor and Public Opinion", The American Journal of Sociology 57 (2): 159–167, doi:10.1086/220916, 
  2. Pendleton, S.c. (1998), 'Rumour research revisited and expanded', Language& Communication, vol. 1. no. 18, pp. 69--86.
  3. Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927; Reprinted with a new introduction, 1971)
  4. (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)
  5. L. William Stern, Zur Psychologie der Aussage. Experimentelle Untersuchungen über Erinnerungstreue. "Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafechtswissenschaft". Vol. XXII, cahier 2/3, 1902.
  6. p.22
  7. 7.0 7.1 Allport, Gordon; Joseph Postman (1951). Psychology of Rumor, 75, Russell and Russell.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Bordia, Prashant, Nicolas DiFonzo (March (2004)). Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor As Social Cognition. Social Psychology Quarterly 67 (1): 33–49.
  9. See the historical discussion by Dr. Aaron Delwiche at
  10. Harsin, Jayson. The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics [online]. Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture; Volume 39, Issue 1; 2006; 84-110;;dn=264848460677220;res=E-LIBRARY}}
  11. (reprinted in Michael Ryan (ed.). 2008. Cultural Studies: An Anthology. London: Blackwell.
  12. Pendleton, S.c. (1998), 'Rumour research revisited and expanded', Language& Communication, vol. 1. no. 18, pp. 69--86.
  13. W. Lance Bennett (2003), News: The Politics of an Illusion
  14. For discussions of these trends in news and politics see John Corner and Richard Pells (eds.) 2003. Media and the Re-styling of Politics. London: Sage.

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