Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Rumours are flying

Why are we apt to accept false rumours no matter what the source? Do we believe it is a natural, social, psychological, essential, human accomplishment? Does it help us understand our social environment, learn about our political predicament?

If it is not true, it is manufactured, fabricated fake, half-true, or better still, a total lie. Vicious and malicious as it may be, it gives us an illusory sense of knowledge and understanding. But a rumour is false and has caused the ruin of many fortunes and many lives.

The psychology of “rumour” and “rumour control” were the subject of several studies after WWII, and then came space technology spawning a myriad means of communication, most useful and most dangerous of all was the smart phone, texting has proved to be the antidote to daily pressures, functioning as a therapeutic activity — to create, deliver and spread rumours.

Psychologist Stephan Landowski of the University of Western Australia conducted a study as to why false information is rampant and within seconds nimbly travels around the world. He concluded that it takes less brain power to believe a statement is false than it is to accept it as truth. We are either lazy or our brains are lazy, or both.

Finding the truth takes time and effort, of which we have neither.

A glaring example is climate change. Is our earth indeed getting warmer? Is it our doing? Is it excessive emission of green gas, or is the warming period a natural, cyclical phenomenon and so minute to be worthy of such concern? Opinions are divided, so are scientists, so are we. Neither side can definite and indubitably prove their point. The percentage of belief ebbs and wanes. In 2008, 71 per cent believed we were guilty, in 2010 it went down to 32 per cent and now it is steady at 66 per cent. We await a verdict of 100 per cent.

A rumour’s strength will vary with the importance of the subject to the individual concerned. Politics and politicians have long been a source of rumour and innuendo, influencing the conduct of the citizen. Rapid communication has cluttered the skies with the spread of false information, but never more so than the US capital, Washington DC nowadays. Through a hostile press towards the president the skies are thick with media misinformation and disinformation, (which is deliberate), you can hardly see the light of day. Only light can reveal the truth.

Distasteful as it is, once a rumour is out it has a sticking effect. It takes hold regardless of the reliability of its source. Long before the demise of Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, it was rumoured that he had died. Stocks fell and Apple lost $4.9 billion. How was the rumour started? An 18-year-old sent a report to CNN’s website. No one can restore the credibility of CNN.

Some of us may remember the rumour that Paul McCartney of the Beatles had died and no number of pictures could convince them. Others believed they had seen Elvis Presley eating ice-cream long after his death. Popping up in different places, sightings of Presley were hungrily awaited by fans.

Did we ever find Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons? Yet Iraq was destroyed; he was murdered; no weapons.

What about the tragic events of the World Trade Centre on 9/11? Some say the Americans are responsible, others say 4,000 Jews did not report to work that day. What are we to believe? We believe what is closer to our own individual convictions.

One bizarre rumour circuited in the Congo that bananas were responsible for the SARS disease. The banana market utterly collapsed. Ninety-nine of banana growers declared bankruptcy.

Is the former president Barack Obama a US citizen? He served two terms as president, a position a non-citizen cannot occupy, yet till now 30 per cent of Americans believe he was born in Kenya. And did he have an affair with Beyoncé? No one knows. Non-substantiated rumour.

One of the most shocking of all rumours, if that is the word, was a Time magazine cover almost half a century ago, asking “is God dead?” It caused such a furore by theologians, believers, historians, scientists etc. Some of us started to wonder. The truth is it was an article by John Elson about the mindset of young people’s shaky belief in God.

The idea was borrowed from a tale by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche written in 1882, “Whither is God”, about a madman landing in a strange town and crying, “where is God?” The villagers surround him and contemplate the issue finally deciding they had killed Him. Even fiction can stir rumours, damaging the morale and menacing the mind of ordinary people often causing needless alarm.

Contrary to gossip, rumour has been described in a study by Gordon W Allport and Leo Portman as: “public communication infused with private hypotheses about how the world works or specifically ways of making sense to help us cope with our anxieties and uncertainties.” Convinced?

Texting is malicious. Are you going to give it up? Inadvertently you may be innocently spreading a poisonous rumour? Is Hillary willing to secure her website before she sends classified emails?

Learning about the whys and hows does not always change a long time habit, but it would not hurt if we could work that lazy brain of ours a little, and verify the source of a rumour, or at the very least, not spread it.


“There is a demon who puts wings on certain stories and who launches them like eagles in the air.”

Alexandre Gumas, The Elder

(1802-1870)

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