“You won’t believe what I just found out! I’m going to tell you, but don’t tell it to anyone.”
When I hear this, the first thing I think is: “If nobody has to know it, better you do not tell it to me.” But of course, then I remember that gossip has a social glue function and I endure stoically for a prudential time so as to be able to change the conversation without looking too rude.
However, rumors are as old as humanity. And its basic mechanism is always the same: there is a person who invents the rumor distorting reality, this it is served on a silver platter to the tattler to spread it and a third naive person believes it without offering any resistance. Luckily, the rumor crashes against the barrier represented by the ear of an intelligent person who understands that it makes no sense to pay attention to gossip and much less spread it.
Rumors work like a social glue
Gordon Allport explained that rumors serve to make people cohere with each other and position themselves in front of someone else, usually the object of the rumor. In practice, the act of telling a gossip acquires an intimate character, so that the gossiping person is telling his interlocutor that he esteems him enough to reveal a “secret”, although most of the time it is not.
In many cases, fake news contains an implicit alarm, they are an indication that the public opinion is against something, therefore, they becomes a kind of “friend’s warning”. From this perspective, it allows us to position ourselves and integrate the group that has been formed against the person or entity that represents the anti-values that must be combated. In those cases, the fake news would be a kind of “letter of invitation” to the club.
However, we must be careful because in many cases rumors become a mechanism of social control that gives power to the person who spread them. Since the tattler possesses “privileged information”, he also acquires a certain power over the receptive group that believes him, a power that will allow him to manipulate them.
Rumors channel uncertainties, fears and anxieties
Rumors serve to channel the uncertainties and anxieties of the people. In fact, for rumors to emerge and be credible, there must be a context of ambiguity. Allport proposed a law according to which, the rumor is proportional to its importance and ambiguity. In other words, the spread of fake news will depend on the importance given to the subject by the people involved and the degree of ignorance on the subject.
That means that for a rumor to spread, it has to make some resonance in our beliefs and expectations.
A perfect example was what happened to P&G company in 1980. It was spread that its logo, which showed a man on the moon, actually represented a devil with horns and with the number “666” hidden. People began to think that the company supported satanic sects and stopped buying their products, causing them millions in losses.
In fact, the rumor was spread by four companies of the competition, which called to the Catholics to be united to confront that perversity, but it is obvious that it found fertile ground in an epoch in which the people were obsessed with the Egyptian myths. P&G took them to trial and they had to compensate them with 19 million dollars, but the damage was already done, proof of that was that in 1991 the company eliminated the supposedly diabolical details and in 1995 they completely changed their logo.
Another example of the damage that can cause a rumor was the case of the soft drink “Tropical Fantasy”, which barely hitting the market was a sales success because its price was much lower than that of competitors. However, soon it spread the rumor that the drink had been created by the Ku Klux Klan to damage the semen quality of African Americans. From that moment its sales plummeted 70%.
That fake news was absurd, but it was “based” on the fact that many of the company’s vending machines were positioned in poor neighborhoods where African-Americans lived. Of course, that was not a plot, but was due to a mere commercial strategy since the company, the Brooklyn Bottling, wanted to position its product among the less favored classes. However, the brand took years to recover from that rumor.
Fake news can be stopped with intelligence
These examples show us that fake news spread when we perceive they are credible (even the most ridiculous stories). When fake news leverage anxiety or intense fear, we are less likely to analyze them logically or to contrast their likelihood.
A rumor is a form of emotional manipulation, so the best weapon to deal with it is intelligence and logic. Being informed, without falling into cognitive biases, is also fundamental since the rumor is full of ambiguity and ignorance.
According to Allport, the rumor is created going through these three processes, so that only 30% of reality persists:
1- Leveling. The rumor is shortened, reducing details and complexity to the story, which helps its dissemination.
2- Exacerbation. Emphasizing and exaggerating certain characteristics of the rumor, to make it more memorable.
3- Assimilation. It is distorted according to prejudices, biases, interests and pre-existing agendas of people who want to spread the rumor, in order to make it emotionally resonant.
Therefore, before the rumor, it is best to act with intelligence. When someone tell you something that invokes an expected consequence (rumors of desires) or that refers to feared or disappointing consequences (fearsome rumors), think twice before believing it and, above all, do not spread it.
DiFonzo, N.; Bordia, P. & Rosnow, R. L. (1994) Reining in rumors. Organizational Dynamics; 23: 47-62.
Allport, G. W. & Postman, L. (1947) The psychology of rumor. Nueva York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Rosnow, R. L.; Yost, J. H. & Esposito, J. L. (1986) Belief in rumor and likelihood of rumor transmission. Language and Communication; 6: 189-194.