Saturday, 22 January, 2022

Causes and Prevention of Rumours

Dr Matiur Rahman

The literal meaning of `rumour’ is ‘baseless propaganda’. This baseless propaganda is so powerful that it can wreak havoc on an individual, family, society or state in any country at any time. There are countless examples of this in history. Rumours have been prevalent since ancient times. Over time, the medium of spreading rumours has changed, but it did not end. Sociologists and psychologists have done a lot of research on rumours. From these researches, we can learn much unknown information about rumours.

It is the instinct of people to live in society divided into different groups. To be grouped and socialised, people have to build social relations. Social relationships are formed through human interaction. This interaction is organised through symbols and language. The constant effort or interaction of people to communicate with each other and to form a common opinion on any issue, to protect their interests and to adapt themselves to social and state events is always noticeable. This attempt to protect the interests of socialised people sometimes goes in favour of one group and against another. As a result, conflict arises in individuals, groups, societies and states. As a result of this conflict, to protect their interests, one group spreads misleading information against the other group and forms public opinion in their favour. This trend is very old and still going on. It is noticeable all over the world all the time.

So, rumour means any word or narration spread about any subject, event or person related to the public concern. In sociology, a rumour is a statement whose veracity cannot be confirmed in a short time or at any time. According to scholars, rumours are just a subset of propaganda. There are different definitions of rumour in sociology and psychology. Rumours are often used to mean “incorrect information” and “inconsistent information”. “Incorrect information” means false and fabricated information and “inconsistent information” refers to intentional misrepresentation.

There are many academic studies on rumours by sociologists and psychologists. Voluminous books have been written abroad on the matter, though the number of such studies in Bangladesh are few. However, articles and reports about rumours in local and foreign newspapers are available from which we get valuable information and ideas about rumours. Robert H. Knapp, in his article “A Psychology of Rumour”, published in 1944, explains why rumours are spread or what the purpose of spreading rumours is. He divided rumours into three categories, influenced by erroneous emotions. For example,

1.            The Pipe-Dream Rumour: It is spread with a good purpose. This type of rumour is spread by persons who wants the rumour to be true, because there is a good motive behind spreading such rumours;

2.            The Bogie or Fear Rumour: It is usually spread to spread panic in the society;

3.            Wedge-Driving Aggression Rumour: This type of rumour is spread to destroy the opponent. The primary purpose of the rumour is that people do not have a clear idea about an issue they are interested in. Such information is chosen as a rumour where there is an opportunity to confuse people.

Gordon Allport and Leo Postman describe the psychological reasons for the rumours in their book titled “The Psychology of Rumour” published in 1948. They described the reasons for rumour as –

1.            Uncertain situation: When the situation is uncertain, people spread rumours or the chances of spreading rumours increase;

2.            Anxiety: When people are in a state of anxiety, they spread rumours or accept rumours. Anxiety is closely related to uncertainty. Several studies have shown that more anxious people are more likely to spread rumours. Research has also shown that rumours of a bad event spread faster than rumours of a good event.

3.            Importance of information: Important information, that is, when the gossiper knows that people want to know information about a subject that is important to them, then they spread it. And psychologists believe that those who spread rumours are more likely to believe it.

4.            Obscurity: People listen to rumours when they have no clear idea about any subject or information.

5.            Protecting one’s self-image: People believe in the information that goes with their image and accepts that rumour as true.

6.            Feeling good: Many studies have shown that people want to feel good about themselves and spread rumours from that position.

7.            To defeat the opponent: Researchers say that rumours are also spread to humiliate others.

8.            Strong social position: Researchers also say that many people resort to rumours to strengthen their social position.

However, different types of people in society accept the rumours in different ways. In other words, individuality plays an important role in this regard. The credibility of a rumour depends on who or whom are spreading the rumour or what is their personality and social position. The results of some studies show that some rumours spread rapidly through certain groups of people because they may believe in the ideology of a particular political party, some religion or social issues. Psychologists say that a certain rumour spreads quickly when it matches the mentality and attitude of the people. For this reason, the same rumour may not spread as fast in rural areas as it does in urban areas. They also said that rumours are more prevalent in backward societies. Because in these societies the rate of literacy is low and there is also a lack of access to accurate information. So, it is easy in these societies to spread rumours about something sensitive.

 For many, spreading rumours or gossip is a chore. A story that can change a person’s perception about a person, group, subject, or event becomes more interesting as a rumour. Apart from celebrities, people also spread rumours about their friends. Many people spread rumours about celebrities. But many researchers say that why people can’t restrain themselves from spreading rumours should be the subject of research. On the other hand, rumours spread more in that society where the tendency of passion and faith is deeply rooted. The people of Bangladesh are prone to strong emotions and beliefs. They are more interested in listening and speaking about imaginary things. And because of this great interest, it is very easy to spread rumours. Different groups of people want to hunt their interests by spreading rumours about different things at different times. The number of such rumours spread in Bangladesh is not few, which often lead to violence and casualties.

The medium of spreading rumours has also changed. Earlier, people used to spread rumours verbally. Now rumours are being spread through various electronic channels. The most popular means of spreading rumours is now social media. Facebook in particular has become one of the most alleged platforms. Experts say that in a society where the media does not operate freely, social media has become popular as an alternative to spreading rumours. They also say that people find social media information more accurate than mainstream media when there is a crisis of confidence in the mainstream media. There is no research on the general public’s confidence in the mainstream media in Bangladesh. However, people often find the information in the mainstream media biased.

Again, many people think that now as almost everyone in Bangladesh has a smartphone, using these smartphones and with the internet, people can easily look through social media and get information about rumours easily. Many people share this information with others which later goes viral. No one cares about information or news sources and truth-lies. Nor do they find any way to verify it. Experts think it is easy to spread rumours through social media. However, the media in Bangladesh has always played a significant role in preventing the spread of rumours and raising awareness.

Experts suggest developing independent media and building people’s confidence in the media to prevent the spread of rumours. Also, there is a need to take some technical steps such as - firstly, to block those social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, YouTube, inbox messages from where any fake news is shared frequently. Technicians can work on this - so that when someone tries to share a rumour with someone else, it is automatically blocked. In Bangladesh, the Cyber Crime Unit has already taken steps to prevent the spread of rumours. Secondly, to make apps available to identify rumours or fake news. Now, many apps have been invented to detect fake news, which could be installed on a smartphone or a computer and experts believe that it is possible to prevent the spread of rumours through this way. Thirdly, raising awareness among people that no rumour can be shared without knowing its authentic source. The mainstream mass media can play a vital role in this regard. Fourth, incorporate write-ups about rumours into the textbooks of all classes especially from primary to higher secondary level. It will make the students aware in advance and it will help to prevent the spread of rumours. Fifthly, Government and non-government organisations can strengthen awareness-raising programmes to prevent the spread of rumours and finally, law enforcement agencies should take exemplary initiatives to identify those who spread rumours.


The writer is Research Consultant, Human Development Research Centre (HDRC), Dhaka