The Demon Tattler

The Damage of Rumors

River Edwards, Author

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The social environment in high school is complicated and difficult to understand. Most students experience some form of social difficulty during high school, but some of the worst of those experiences are often connected to a rumor that seriously damaged their social image.

But how do rumors spread?

Rumors are usually complex due to the way they are formulated and spread. Studies show that most rumors begin with a story that is at least somewhat true but gets changed and manipulated to the point where it is completely inaccurate. However, when it spreads to more and more people, like a giant game of telephone, not only does it appear true, but the story also changes. What may have been a simple retelling of an eventful night, for example, has the potential to turn into something blown way out of proportion.

Rumors spread—or don’t spread—through a process called “biased assimilation.” Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein states in a 2008 lecture that whether we notice it, there is a filter we have on any information presented to us. In other words, it is how we determine the accuracy of information. When it comes to rumors, whether or not we believe the story depends on our preconceived ideas about the people involved.

An example of this would be false information spread about a person who has had issues in the past. While the information may be inaccurate, we already have a bias toward that individual that determines whether or not we believe the false information.

Sunstein states, “What supports your prior convictions will be new and fresh, and have credibility,” reinforcing the claim that we already have a bias before we even contemplate the accuracy of information. However, Sunstein believes it goes both ways, saying, “What goes the other way will seem preposterous and easily dismissed.”

For example, say a student at SFHS has had a completely clean track record as far as involvement with drugs. If an individual were to gossip about their doing drugs at a party, most people, based on their prior knowledge and opinion of the individual, would dismiss this information as being completely false. However as Sunstein claims, it goes both ways. If that same student had done drugs in the past and were accused of doing them again recently, most people would believe it because the information agrees with their preconceived beliefs about that person.

Dealing with rumors is a dangerous game. According to Sunstein, “The very denial of the rumor draws more attention to it.” Sunstein believes the denial leaves a “cognitive echo,” which is usually the effect that convinces people that the rumor is true. The more an individual denies the rumor, the more convincing it is due to their efforts to defend themselves, which is why dealing with rumors is complicated.

But why do rumors spread so fast?

Sunstein believes the reason rumors gain so much momentum is due to “information cascades.” This is a process by which the awareness of people’s beliefs controls an individual’s belief-formation. This essentially means that the first few people to come into contact with the rumor don’t really affect public opinion, but as more and more people gain knowledge of the rumor, it gradually becomes more believable.

For instance, if an individual were to show up to school one day and every single person they had contact with told them the same bit of information, no matter how erroneous, the sheer number of people who seemed to believe it would likely be enough to convince that individual it was accurate.

However, if only one person were to present them with that same information, they would likely dismiss it as false. In other words, the number of people who are aware of the rumor influences its perceived accuracy.

Sunstein proposes that there are three standard behaviors in which an individual’s judgement and reasoning are completely overridden by social interaction.

The first of the three is corroboration — people are more interested and tentative because they lack information. This is what drives people’s curiosity when confronted with information of unknown accuracy. Another important contributor is the exchange of information — any group with an accepted position will find and agree with information that supports that position. Finally, there is the concern for reputation — people fear being held in low esteem, so whether or not the information agrees with their position or bias, they will choose a position based on the situation that doesn’t put their own reputation at risk, or whatever everyone else agrees with.

An example of this is peer pressure. If an entire individual’s friend group had a position on something, like an opinion of someone they may dislike, that individual would likely not challenge that opinion because they would fear being judged for their differing opinion.

However, there are some issues with the way we process information. Studies show that when considering a topic, whether it be a rumor or basic information on something, we are usually completely unaware of the bias of our own groups. People also “discount the importance of ideologically minded people to willfully mislead,” making it especially tricky to discern a lie from the truth.

Hypothetically, if a parent or trusted individual such as a close friend were to share a piece of information, one may not even question if what they say is true or false. In other words, people may not account for the possibility that a trusted individual would willfully spread false information.

Rumors do actually have a systematic way in which they are told, the way they alter perceptions of those involved, and the way they spread.

A study done by social psychologists Nicholas DiFonzo, at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Prashant Bordia, at the University of Queensland in Australia, revealed that rumors are “embedded with stable cause attributions that affect perceptions and predictions in systematic ways,” according to an article on the American Psychological Association website.

The researchers organized a six-day experiment in which a group would discuss a rumor. The experiment showed systematic patterns in the actual content of the interaction, as well as the amount each individual participated, which was “consistent with the theoretical idea of rumor mongering as a collective, problem-solving interaction that is sustained by a combination of anxiety, uncertainty, and credulity.”

The internet plays a significant role in the spread of rumors. Instead of only face-to-face discussions of gossip, information also spreads through social media and texting. This is so destructive because it is nearly impossible to stop, and it can do permanent damage.

A student at SFHS who recently dealt with a nasty rumor that permanently hurt his social life spoke about the experience on condition of anonymity. “I couldn’t talk to anyone without trying to defend myself from the rumors,” he said. “Everyone knew about it, and it wouldn’t go away.

“The other side of it was how my girlfriend dealt with it,” he continued. “It really seemed that she had a harder time as a girl because she was terrified of being accused of being a slut.” The student continued, “She was in tears almost every day about it.”

It’s no secret that high school is packed full of anxiety and uncertainty, creating an unfortunately perfect environment for rumors to spread.

Colleen Crawford, writing in Health Guidance, strongly suggests that to combat and prevent rumors, people should question the information’s accuracy and avoid spreading it further.

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The Damage of Rumors