Are rumors becoming more common? One might think so. It’s easy to be dazzled by the explosion of fast, ubiquitous communications technologies: cell phones and text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and the entire web.
But one should be skeptical. We know the present better than the past. Recent memories are more salient than distant ones, and we exaggerate novelty. As the Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer shows in his recent book, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, much of what we “know” about the past is quite mythical.
It’s hard to know with any certainty whether rumors are becoming more common, for two reasons. Though rumors—and myth, folklore, urban legends, etc.—have been of academic interest for more than a century, there is little or no quantitative data on their prevalence. Most studies rely on the richness of particular experiments or case studies, rather than on measuring overall rates. Also, the notion of rumor is inherently fuzzy. We typically use the term for circulating stories of uncertain truth. But it is difficult to precisely demarcate rumors from all the other sorts of interpersonal communications that are also less than certain.
Given this difficulty, sociologists often redefine rumor from an object to an activity, and examine how rumors spread through networks. In The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration and Trade Matter, Gary Fine and Bill Ellis show that rumors become more common after extraordinary events (such as the 9/11 attacks), in situations of intergroup conflict (e.g. new immigrant flows) and in economic crises.
The rise of new communications technologies, and the possible shrinking size of Americans’ face-to-face conversation networks, clearly suggests that rumors can spread more rapidly and widely than before. But online fact-checking sites such as snopes.com, which calls itself “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation,” can also limit the spread of dubious reports.
Nevertheless, once loosed into the online wilds, rumors can persist as low-level background noise for a very long time.
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