Rumour has recently become a buzzword in our country. Its all-pervasive presence in our daily life has added a new dimension to the politics, culture and society of Bangladesh. It has also assumed importance as a topic of academic pursuit and interest.
How do the academicians define rumour? According to academics, it is an item of circulating information, whose veracity status is yet to be verified at the time of circulation. There are some factors that contribute to the creation and spread of rumour. These factors are explained in the book, The Psychology of Rumour, written by Gordon Allport and Leo Postman in 1947. Here’s a quick review of what these factors are.The first one is the uncertainty factor which says that people spread rumours when there’s uncertainty. That is, when we don’t already have a firm grasp on how or why things are happening in the world, rumours start to spread. The second factor is that people spread rumours when they feel anxiety. Oftentimes uncertainty breeds anxiety. Human beings like to have a clear sense of the world; so, when we feel uncertainty, we get anxious, and anxiety leads to rumour spreading. Research has also shown that “dread” rumours (i.e., rumours that something bad is going to happen) spread more than “wish” rumours (i.e., rumours that something good is going to happen). This is the case both for rumours spread online and for rumours spread in person.
The third factor is that people spread rumours when the information is important. In fact, Allport and Postman’s “basic law of rumour” stipulates that spreading rumours depends on both the ambiguity of the situation and the importance of the rumour. People are more likely to spread rumours when the information is more important to them. The importance of the subject matter of the rumour to the recipients dictates the speed of its circulation. The next factor is that people spread rumours when they believe the information. If you hear a rumour that you think is completely ridiculous, you probably won’t find yourself on a mission to spread that information. On the contrary, the credulous section of people believes the rumour first and then takes part in its spread.
The rumour-mongers are now using the most powerful social media, the Facebook to spread rumour. In social media, political rumour manufacturers manipulate people’s emotions very much while fabricating viral content to make it as much contagious as possible by using provocative words, and using photographs and videos to create negative reactions.
Bangladesh has over 25 million active Facebook accounts. With the number of active Facebook users on the rise, and an increasingly heated political landscape, the rumour-mongers are fishing in the troubled water to create social anarchy. Unless there are strong measures to fight rumours, it will bring for the nation grater devastating consequences. The gravity of the situation has reached such a state that a new unit of Bangladesh Police is formed to prevent the circulation of rumours on social media.
It is important to know why Bangladeshi people belief in rumour is growing in spite of the economic development of the country and increasing rate of literacy. The answer to this query may be traced in an objective study of the macro socio-economic indicators of development. We see that our socio-economic development is not evenly poised among all sections of population. A handful of people control the economy of the country. Only 5 per cent of the rich people own the 95 per cent of wealth of the country. A huge number of youth are unemployed and hence frustrated and are living aimless lives.
According to the “Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2018” of the ILO, youth (age 15-24 years) unemployment increased from 6.32 per cent in 2000 to 12.8 per cent in 2017. Dr Fahmida Khatun in a 2018 article mentioned that the youth of the country have not benefited from Bangladesh’s economic growth. Furthermore, a large proportion of the total youth population (29.8 per cent) is neither in education, nor in employment or training (NEET).Such an imbalanced socio-economic scenario is bound to be a fertile ground for germination of stress, depression, and feeling of exclusiveness among the youths. A band of youths with these negative feelings are easily becoming prone to believing in the rumour and having a mob-mentality. That is why, the youths are mostly found to be involved in the recent mob-lynching spree.
The consequences of rumour may be multi dimensional and grave ranging from large scale ethnic cleansing through financial loss to the defamation of character of even good personalities. Rumours can have attitudinal effects, such as sullying a company’s reputation (e.g. “Corporation x contributes to the Jews”). Rumours also result in behavioural outcomes, such as reducing sales (e.g. “Soft Drink Company z is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and puts a substance in their soda that makes black men sterile”), fomenting a riot (e.g. rumours that police caused the death by impalement of a Native Australian by chasing him on his bicycle led to extensive rioting in Sydney.
The rumour is confined not only to the political and social arenas. The financial market, the Stock Exchange is also a helpless victim of rumour-mongering of a sort in the absence of vigilant mechanism. Golam Sarwar of Greenwich University in a recent article on the manipulation of financial market in Bangladesh explains how big investors are siphoning off a huge amount of money of the small investors through orchestrated rumour-mongering. He says that the technique of market manipulation in Bangladesh is quite interesting. Manipulators spread news that encourages common investors to buy shares in the up market (index is trending high). In the meantime, manipulators sell their shares and become inactive. In such a condition common investors lose their confidence when they become aware that the big investors are trading in the opposite direction. At this point, common investors start panicking and sell their shares aggravating the slump. On the other hand, when the market is down, manipulators start buying shares at cheap prices. This leads us to the question: how big investors can easily mislead small and medium investors at the stock market in Bangladesh. This is done mainly through disseminating false information or rumour of a Bangladeshi kind by the big manipulators. Manipulators are normally big investors who are very well-informed. Hence, they can easily mislead common investors who are not well informed about the real trend of share market due to inadequate information and data about the companies in the Stock Exchange website.
Rumour causes human casualty many times when the topic of rumour is an issue of national and international importance. Many riots have occurred across the world on the basis of negative rumours. The communal riot, sectarian riot and political riot are galore in human history. The 1967 riots in New Jersey's largest city were triggered by a rumour. On July 12, two white police officers had stopped an African-American cab driver for improperly passing them and somehow, a story got out that the officers had killed him while he was in custody. In Bangladesh mob-lynching resulting from the rumour that human heads are required for the construction of Padma Bridge has cost the lives of at least a dozen people. On 20th August a mentally disabled woman was mercilessly beaten by mob in Kurigram based on the rumour of child lifting.
Rumours can be successfully prevented and managed by reducing uncertainty and anxiety, reducing belief in rumour, or reducing dissemination. The sources from which rumour is originated should be monitored. Social media must be fully filtered and monitored by the regulatory bodies. But, what about those rumours that spread sans social media? If though there’s no rumour in social media, there’ll always be rumours on the streets. But authorities can help in curbing this problem. They need to understand that people starve for updates whenever a crisis happens. So, the responsible body need to provide update information at the earliest. To circulate notifications warning and clarifying the issues to the people from the body concerned may be good deterrent. Responsible role by the print and press media is a must in the face of fake news by the fake online and print media. Most importantly, measure should be taken to punish the people responsible for spreading rumour. Most importantly, netizens need to show more rationality and common sense before believing any trending story. We need to do our own research, and should search for as many relevant and credible sources as possible before believing in any rumour. The last but not least, awareness building measures should be taken by the government bodies. The Police Department has recently observed public awareness week in the wake of mob-lynching which was appreciable.
People’s right of access to information should be free and unhindered. To refer back again to Dr. Sarwar who also mentioned the solution to saving the small investors from share market manipulation by the big shots. He complains that normally in weak markets like the DSE, common investors cannot access information and hence lack proper knowledge about the valuation of stocks. Investors in such markets exhibit herding behaviour (the behaviour that represents the tendency for an individual to mimic the actions of a larger group), and more or less depend on news or peer suggestions for their buy and sell signal rather than their valuation of stocks with fundamental information (e.g. revenues, expenses and income, growth prospects etc.) of the companies.
While speaking of access to information, he says that DSE website does not have historical information of companies beyond four to five years. Most of the given data are also missing. So, access to information is a fundamental aspect of stock market efficiency. When traders are informed, literate about the valuation of stocks, have free access to public information, manipulators cannot fool them with rumours and fear-mongering. So, the government should focus on these issues and take necessary steps to ensure free access to information for the investors.
The same solution is applicable to the spread of rumour of all types. It would be irrational and suicidal to attribute rumour to the political engineering and conspiracy of the opposition. It would be far better to unearth the root of any rumour whatsoever and bring the culprits to book. Law enforcing agencies must manage rumour professionally. At the same time, causes of rumour should be studied from the socio-economic perspectives rather than the mere political angles and viewpoints.
The writer is Associate Professor
and Chairman, Department of English, BGC Trust University, Chattogram.