September 17, 2008

The Sociological Meaning of Rumors

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Recently my father told me about a conversation he had at a local sporting event. It was during the height of the coverage of the political conventions, and so the small talk he clip_image002had with a woman seated next to him turned to politics. She told him with great authority that she had inside information that one of the candidates was in fact not an American citizen. “Where did you get your facts?” my dad asked, but the woman didn’t respond. That was the end of their conversation.

Presidential election years are ripe for rumors, and they are spread particularly easily through e-mail and the Internet. I have decided not to attach any names to the rumors I will discuss in this post for that reason; it is too easy for even discussion of rumors to seem like verification for those who want to believe them. So why do people believe them anyway?

To answer this, let’s consider some of the rumors that have been spread in recent years. One candidate was alleged to have fathered a child outside of his marriage during a prior campaign. Besides suggestions of adultery, the child has a darker complexion than the candidate, thus rumors hinted that he had an affair with an African-American woman. In reality, the child is the adopted daughter of the candidate and his wife, not the product of a secret affair.

It is not an accident that someone spread this rumor during the primary in a southern state, next door to one that elected a senator who ran by using images of African Americans in his ads to imply that less qualified blacks were taking white peoples’ jobs. Less than four decades before that election, marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in many states in the south, and racial tensions have lingered. While these tactics would certainly not appeal to all southern voters, for some older white voters who may be uncomfortable with many social changes that have taken place, they might be effective.

Hints of interracial relationships may strike a chord in a primary election in some regions but not others. But other rumors touch on national anxieties. Another rumor has persisted during this campaign that one of the candidates is Muslim, and that the candidate was sworn in using the Koran rather than the New or Old Testament.

Neither of these rumors is true, but they are also not surprising given the trauma following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since that time, people of Middle Eastern decent and Muslim Americans have faced discrimination and suspicion. Because the plotters and attackers were Middle Eastern and claimed their actions were in the name of Islam, it is easy to see how people might fear both. Trying to attach this fear to the candidate is a way to deride him as a potential enemy.

This rumor also reflects the fear some have that Christianity is under siege in the United States, allegedly by those who support strict separation between church and state. A few years ago I saw bumper stickers that said “It’s Okay to Say Merry Christmas” in response to some stores that said “Happy Holidays” in their ads. One acquaintance of mine had trouble understanding why anyone wouldn’t like to be told “Merry Christmas” regardless of their religious affiliation. Over the past few years many stores and cities have shown greater sensitivity to non-Christians during holidays, sometimes removing overtly Christian imagery from public property and show windows. Public service announcements now wish celebrants “Happy Ramadan” in the fall, in addition to “Happy clip_image006Kwanzaa” and “Happy Hanukkah” and “Merry Christmas” at the end of the year.

While these gestures may make minority groups feel more included, for others the change might feel like a strange and unwelcome distraction from traditions of the past, when Christian prayers were regularly included in public schools. 

Sociologists study rumors as a form of collective behavior. They are similar to urban legends, modern-day folklore which can persist for years even without solid evidence. In fact, several websites like snopes.com exist to debunk rumors and urban legends. Campaigns now have staff members whose job consists entirely of challenging rumors on the Internet. And yet they persist.

Simply put, rumors continue because people spread them, knowing that at least some people will believe them; there is nothing surprising about that. It is the content of the rumor that is important, as it touches on anxieties about a broader social issue that makes the listener ripe for believing that it might be true.

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Comments

Rumors...uh! Rumors are the most altered type of information that some people love to hear and others just don't pay that much attention to them. Just for the simple fact that they are rumors!!.Some rumors like in this blog may hold some kind of true. Or why would they be out there anyway? There is always something behind a rumor it could be true or not. Or it could be that sometimes people just create them to harm others. But still some people so believe them. It could be that those people who do believe the rumors are because they don’t know the person that well. Now, in these rumors going on about someone who is running for president it is obvious he would get all kinds of rumors. I mean this person is in the spot light everybody is looking at him and anything that could be said about him can provoke some anxiety in others.

The media plays a big role in spreading rumors. I believe if the media did a better job of determining fact from fiction, there would be less rumors. Many rumors begin with innuendos, where people don't even say anything, it is just simply implied, and word will spread like wildfire.

I agree rumors are nasty! Most people will totally disagree with the information but yet they could still believe it. Rumors are being spread like crazy by the media these days and every time a rumor is spread, it alters.

This post is a great example of the widespread of rumors. Rumors can spread like wild fire across the nation and it is almost strange how almost all of them are proven false. Most people know this too, so with this fact why do people still believe them? I like how you said that rumors are studied as a part of collective behavior, and this might be the reason why people believe rumors so easily. Collective behavior has never been logical, or followed too many clearly defined norms. It is people acting off of a stimuli. You said that rumors touch the anxieties of people, a common anxiety. This anxiety is their common stimuli that they are acting off of. So, I would agree with you, on how that could be a reason why rumors are so popular.
Great post, I enjoyed it.

I am browsing through the blog as part of an online sociology class assignment. This post is very informative and explains the concept of rumors and collective behavior very well. A rumor, in many cases, is a misrepresentation of a situation or created to fuel disharmony. I hate the fact that difficult times such as the recession open a Pandora’s Box of rumors to jolt the people out of their comfort zone. I am glad that that candidate the woman whispered about was able to surmount all the challenges and became our president.

Rumors are a horrible thing in our society. They spread faster than bread on butter. This blog does a great job at showing the spread of rumors. Media and other sources spread rumors that get out into the world and go crazy! They swell up like a marshmallow in a cup of hot coa-coa on a cold winters day.

Rumors can do great harm to people way of living, the truth table should be used, if it true then false the its probably false, but if false then true, then the rumor is probably true.

The problem with rumors and todays society is that rumors are so easily spread by the internet and sources are not always reliable but many people do not take the time to check whether or not they are reliable. People naturally like to gossip and the internet gives them a faster, convenient way to do so.

Rumors are spread easily, but even more easily with the advancement of technology. Gossip and rumors can get spread at a faster pace, not to mention that they are even easier to twist when viewed through the Internet. However, rumors are definitely a part of society!

This is a great article. Rumors are spread so quickly between people its crazy. Mass Media plays a big part in this since they dont seem to do backround checks before putting it on air. I liked how you compared it to Collective Behavior because they are both irrational and get out of hand easily.

This post is a great example of all different types of rumors that are spread throughout all different types of situations. I can’t believe how rumors are so quickly spread. I find it hard to believe that people say how much they disagree with rumors, but that they still somehow find a way to spread them and talk about fictional information and though it’s factional. People are dramatic and thrive to here different types of “interesting” information which is usually proven false. Thanks for sharing!

This is a great article. It shows how media really spreads these rumors so much faster. One person says it and it gets EVERYWHERE. Sharing things has become so easy. Also, the internet can change what you said now a days. It's crazy. Rumors are nasty! Thanks for the article!

it is weird how rumors are more easily accepted when they are about politics and canidates. its as if we want corruption and dirty secrets in our government. It is also interesting to think that rumors are a collective behavior but i suppose that it takes more than one person to believe in it for it to spread.

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