Halting the march of rumours
Community leaders and democratically elected office holders must play a key role in preventing dangerous rumours
- It is no surprise then that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the rumour mill has Muslims deliberately throwing infected ₹2,000 notes on the road or Muslim street vendors spitting on vegetables and fruits.
- Periods of social stress or natural disasters are fertile ground for rumours, which not only spread like wild fire but have grave consequences — scapegoating, social boycott, violence and arson, even lynching and murder.
The anatomy of rumours
- The moment an account is publicly demonstrated and accepted to be true or false, it ceases to be a rumour.
- In a sense then, a rumour’s truth or falsity is irrelevant to its efficacy or impact. Yet, every unconfirmed account is not a rumour.
- Something in it must make it contextually plausible for the listener or the reader. If an account is obviously bizarre it cannot become a rumour.
- So, a rumour is a useful half-truth with strong emotional overtones that spreads fast, gripping individual minds to create a common consciousness and agency, often with grave social consequences.
- An overheated mind burns all evidence that comes its way and surrenders to rumours, often in the service of emotional needs.
Why they circulate
- A group consisting of ‘outsiders’, already distrusted and disliked, becomes an easy target, ready to be blamed for the current mess.
- Rumours succeed in societies ridden with an us-them syndrome, already polarised.
- Indeed, by binding people, creating temporary solidarities against a perceived enemy, they only deepen polarisation.
- A rumour is that story. And the more horrifying, outrageous and disgusting the story, the greater its emotional resonance and quicker its spread.
- But as mentioned, to get kickstarted, it must already be believable. Some factual detail needs to be added to the fiction to give it plausibility that it otherwise lacks.
- In polarised societies, fear and vulnerability make rumour-mongering easy. But there are other reasons for why they get widely entrenched.
- First, the desire to conform gets the better of a questioning mind. Rather than face sanction and ostracisation for sticking out, people find it safer to emulate members of their group.
- Second, ironically, a belief gets entrenched after like-minded people discuss it among themselves. Discussion has a cascading effect; the more one talks about it, the more the biased rumour grows.
- Third, a denial by a mistrusted outsider, no matter how great her expertise, only ends up solidifying rumours. Group dynamics in polarised societies works with a logic all of its own; every person is necessarily partisan.
- So here in brief is the conundrum: Since societies can never be fully informed or secure, rumours are inevitable and in times of acute crisis, they are a menace.
- Yet, providing rational rebuttal or furnishing relevant information is unable to stem the tide.
- Depolarising society, loosening the grip of prejudice and calmly addressing the collective anxieties and obsessions of a group are deterrents, but, only in the long run.
- In the short run, regulatory laws to check rumours are imperative. As also, the need to have critical insiders, those with authority within a community, deny injurious rumours, not least on the ground that eventually they harm even those who propagate, spread and exploit them.
- Community leaders and democratically elected office holders must play a crucial role in halting the march of dangerous rumours.