Psychological Foundation of False Rumours

Rumours4The psychological basis of rumours are brought to light when different examples are studied. The main ones are detailed below. They can also be said to be the causes or conditions of rumour spreading. They show why people indulge in gossip and how rumour circulates.

1 Satisfaction of Sex

Of all the rumors we hear in our lives a large number are concerned with incidents based on the sex behaviour of individuals. When four people of a particular area get together it is their invariable practice to dissect the character of another person. Many take pleasure in reading about the alleged sexual corruptions and indiscretions of other people.

Why does this happen?

From the psychological viewpoint the causes behind this are the frustrated and repressed sexual passions and desires of the individuals who ventilate and make up these stories. When the sexual passions of an individual are not satisfied in any way or they are repressed them in the extreme, they are not destroyed but in an unconscious form are trying to find expression or the opportunity for such expression.

Whenever the individual hears any true or false incident of another’s sexual corruption these unconscious desires are aroused and rumour takes shape. In making a rumour the individual also gets some satisfaction or relief indirectly. It will be found on analysis that very often at the root of these degraded tales is the satisfaction of the sexual instinct.

Sometimes this also happens when a person of the opposite sex refuses the proposal of an individual for contact, or fails to encourage the individual. They then seek satisfaction or revenge in defaming the individual who refused his or her proposal.

2 Satisfaction of the feeling of rivalry or revenge

More often than not the rumour originates in the desire of the individual to satisfy his feeling of rivalry or revenge. People who cannot supersede other individuals by fair means try to get their rivals down by defaming and degrading them.

3. Methods of Spreading Rumour

Generally speaking, no particular means are required for spreading rumors but from the scientific viewpoint the methods can be analysed. Generally in order to give currency to a rumour the people who are doing it concoct a story and tell it to the general public in which it passes from one individual to another. There are limits to this kind of rumour spreading and these limits are not very far apart.

If an incident is related to casually, people are inclined to take little, if any note and it fails to become a rumour. The person spreading the rumour has to sharpen the subject, or assimilate some interesting features which were not there originally but are necessary to raise the level above that of everyday drudgery. The better the sharpening, the greater rapidity in which the rumour spreads.

4 Assimilation

Before it can be made to form a rumour it needs to be assimilated. Any occurrence is rumoured only when the public assimilate it because then people accept it and believe it easily. It is common knowledge that rumors spread more easily when the means of transport and communications are easily available and more developed.

A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, or so the saying goes, and new research has sought to prove just how long it takes fact checking to catch up.

On average, it takes more than 12 hours for a false claim to be debunked online, according to two recent projects that compared how falsehoods and truths spread.

“On Twitter it is found that a true rumor is often resolved within two hours of first emerging. But a rumor that proves false takes closer to 14 hours to be debunked. We find that social media users generally show a tendency towards supporting rumors whose veracity is yet to be resolved”, the researchers wrote.

Why are False Allegations so popular on the Internet

The internet, not just Twitter, seems to abound with false rumors and malicious gossip, but is their popularity testament to a fundamental tendency of believing in the bogus?

Given most people already know the web is brimming with phony information (after all, who on the planet has yet to receive a scam email?) users should be naturally suspicious and sceptical of the internet. Yet hoax internet rumors and gossip continue to grow, not diminish.

This rising epidemic of falsity is therefore a psychological conundrum. Understanding how false allegations spread involves grasping the underlying mechanics of an internet rumour. Information cascades begin with ‘propagators’. Propagators start false rumors often because they are motivated by some kind of self-serving interest, which could include getting attention. They may want to malign an individual, movement or corporation for personal reasons. Receivers and disseminaters of false information those who take the baton from the ‘propagators’ and pass it on to the wider world, seem to not allow enough motivation of ‘propagators’. They don’t ‘discount’ the dodgy. Instead they often seem to falsely assume that rumours are being spread for altruistic reasons, to warn and therefore protect. As opposed to real world conversation, perhaps the underlying vested interest of the internet ‘propagator’ remains more difficult to detect.
Successful rumours are purposefully aligned with what Sunstein refers to as ‘priors’; the prior beliefs of large swathes of the population. A spreading rumour succeeds because it often confirms prior prejudices.

If you have little or no information of your own to check or compare against a rumor, the very fact a large number of other people believe, becomes evidence in itself that it must be true. This is how a rumour feeds on itself to grow in strength.

Even if a rumour starts with just the most gullible believing it, then as it spreads and this number grows, the sheer fact of such a growing consensus convinces the more sceptical. It must be true because so many believe it. This is how rumours confirm themselves.

As a rumour gathers pace, despite the possibility there are many who harbor doubts about its veracity, these doubters tend to keep misgivings to themselves. They prefer to conform, don’t desire negative attention or want to appear out of step with the group. The balancing effect of counter views get swept aside in the tsunami of a rampant rumour.

Doubts may exist but remain private, as a result they are less visible on the internet. If only those who believe a rumour are salient, because they are motivated to spread allegations, then rumours escalate because they crush any opposition before them through sheer weight of numbers.

Cleverly designed rumours make anyone appearing to oppose or doubt, appear supporters of the immoral behaviour being gossiped about. So expressing doubts about the veracity of an allegation concerning someone at the centre of a paedophile accusation looks like support for pedophilia, when it’s no such thing. Doubts can also appear as lacking concern over the issue.

Sunstein cites experiments on how influenced we are by others’ behaviour, in forming our own judgement, on the internet using music downloads. Music choice was chosen because theoretically what we like is a personal preference.

The research he cites found that songs which were popular or unpopular in the control group, where other’s downloads, and therefore judgments were not available, performed very differently in the sections of the experiments where others’ choices were made visible. In those conditions of the experiment, most songs could become popular or unpopular, influenced by the choices of the first downloaders. The identical song could be a hit or a failure, simply because others, at the start of the experiment, were seen to choose to download it or not.

Perhaps the most under-estimated psychological mechanism by which false allegations rapidly gain widespread support on the internet is a process Sunstein refers to as ‘group polarisation’. This process is important because the group taking part will not be aware that they are involved in spreading a false allegation, they will think instead they are dispassionately discussing it.

Group polarisation is a well known tendency for any cluster who are merely discussing something to shift in a more extreme position in the direction they were predisposed to. When individual members of a gathering tend to take risks, a ‘risky shift’ is observed when they get together to make a decision. Where members are individually cautious, even more caution emerges when in a group.

Risky and cautious shift are both examples of group polarization. Group polarization occurs in a wide range of contexts, all bearing on rumour transmission. For example Sunstein cites a study posing the question how attractive are people in photographs? Group deliberation generates more extreme judgments: If individuals think someone is good-looking, the group is likely to conclude that the same individual is devastatingly attractive. Sunstein argues movie stars benefit from this psychological process.

He contends that discussions which occur about an allegation on the internet are likely, through this process of group polarisation, to end in the rumour more believed and therefore disseminated.

Malicious gossip, if unchecked, could end up influencing who governs us. If it wasn’t for the spread of such sham information on the internet, thousands wouldn’t gossip and believe Barack Obama is an Islamist extremist, not born in the United States.

If the internet becomes what we know of the world, the rising spread of deception is particularly ominous. Checks and balances that apply elsewhere are ruled out by the very sprawling freedom of the web.

Official attempts to quash rumours often backfire and even end up lending them more credibility. Perhaps the answer is that all users of the internet need to guard against malicious gossip as opposed to relying on someone else to do it. Whoever is tasked with controlling rumour on the internet, will themselves become the subject of gossip.

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