How a Rumor Mill Grinds the Truth

How do Rumor Mills get started?  How does that vicious machine take the truth and re-grind it into false consumption by the masses?


Harvard professor Cass Sunstein believes he knows why:

The spread of information is profoundly affected by hidden psychological and social mechanisms, says Sunstein. Propagators are individuals who spread a piece of false information to others, and the reputation of the propagator can significantly affect the acceptance of a rumor, causing another to ignore their own disbelief. This can then lead to the rumor spreading on to the next person and outward from the propagator in a cascade due to each person’s reputation with the next. According to Sunstein, this dynamic can result in multiple, unstable equilibria, because depending on the way in which the information is communicated it may continue to spread or be disbelieved.

Two factors which lead to continued cascading of information are the awareness of individuals that others believe a rumor and group polarization. In some cases, the simple fact that many people have already accepted a particular rumor will be sufficient to overwhelm their internal signals which would lead them to normally disbelieve it. This means that once a rumor gets accepted by a certain number of individuals it may spread rapidly. …

The pernicious effects of group psychology are magnified by the large and dynamic social networks formed on the Internet and ossified by the permanent nature of public postings. The result is that a rumor, no matter how unfounded, can spread quickly and cause permanent damage, and this could be potentially devastating for public figures, organizations, and businesses for whom reputation is essential. Therefore, it may be necessary for free speech to be chilled in the area of rumors and false speech, since without an impairment to the natural social propagation of such rumors, permanent damage might be caused by an unfounded statement.

What Professor Sunstein fails to relay is how we can all defeat the infectious rumor mill.

We know groupthink is dangerous and we understand how lies quickly become truths when repeated ad infinitum — but how do we quash that malicious meme propagation once it begins its seeping?

4 comments

  • Okay ignoring your disgusting picture I think you make a point. Why tell us what we already know. If you work in an office you know all that already. I’d like to know how to stop it too. Who will say something to stop it without getting in trouble.

  • Maybe someone does need to stand up, Anne. Stand up and say to the group, “Waitaminute. I know this isn’t true. It doesn’t make sense. Let’s re-evaluate.”
    Then the meme can change from condemnation to searching to exoneration — and the meme swings the other way…

  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    I doubt if we can stop this, at the most – we can shun away from it – only if we don’t get too bogged down by it in the first place.
    We need to be detached from the excitement and think about the rationale – “does is make sense?”
    Unfortunately very few people can do it, most are comfortable engaging in it.

  • Excellent comment, Katha! You are right on target, too. It is up to each of us to think on our own and not get fooled by the false veracity of group think.

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