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A manual on fighting rumours

Researchers publish manual on fighting rumours

“Rumours are the oldest form of mass media,” Jean-Noël Kapferer wrote in the 1990 book Rumors: Uses, Interpretations, and Images and now quoted by the Election Integrity Partnership, a nonpartisan consortium of US researchers writing at Nieman Lab presenting 10 factors that shape a rumour’s capacity for online virality. The text is published prior to the US midterm elections but are valid in any situation.

The consortium comprises researchers co-led by the Stanford Internet Observatory and the Washington Center for an informed public.

10 factors that help determine a rumour’s potential to gain traction:

  • Uncertainty/ambiguity
  • Diminished trust in media and authoritative sources of information
  • Significance/impact
  • Familiarity/repetition
  • Compellingness of evidence
  • Emotional appeal
  • Novelty
  • Participatory potential
  • Origins and amplification in the social network
  • Inauthentic amplification or manipulation

“Rumours emerge and thrive under uncertainty. When people feel a sense of uncertainty about a particular topic — perhaps due to a lack of timely information — they come together to try to resolve that uncertainty, participating in what’s called “sensemaking.”

“Another factor that mediates the spread of rumours is the availability of timely, quality information from trusted sources, including news organizations, government agencies, and public officials. In informational environments where the official sources are not seen as trustworthy, either due to their own failures, bad-faith efforts to undermine confidence, or a combination of the two, rumours are more likely to spread.”

“Certain contextual features of an existing or potential rumour — significance/impact and repetition/familiarity — can set it up for “success” in terms of spread.” 

“Another factor is familiarity, which can be created and reinforced through repetition.” 

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“Indeed, the mere repetition of information is enough to increase its acceptance, a phenomenon termed the “illusory truth effect.”

The researchers write that first-person accounts can be compelling on their own, particularly where the source is seen to lack malicious motive, or the situation is imbued with a sense of immediacy. 

“A significant part of a rumour’s engagement potential is its capacity to stimulate an emotional response. Our emotional responses can be a major factor in the sharing of rumours. Emotions can activate us to do something — and in online environments that often means engaging with content. Rumours that invoke a strong emotional response will therefore likely spread further and faster than other rumours, including those with a humorous quality. 

“Election-related rumours that villainize specific individuals or groups, like poll workers, judges, law enforcement officers, or members of a political party, in ways that evoke feelings of anger and/or disgust have the potential to spread widely among an “in group” that shares a particular demographic or political identity.”

“Another critical factor of rumour spread is novelty. Foundational research on rumouring, conducted long before the rise of the internet and social media, theorized that novelty determines how fast and how far a rumor spreads”, the  researchers write adding that more recently, researchers of online environments have found that false news spreads faster and further than true news, in part due to the “sensational” qualities.

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“It’s also important to understand how the location of a rumour within the “social network” can play a role in how quickly and how far it spreads. Rumours spread through social netorks, both online and off — and the structure of those networks shape their spread.”


“A rumor that begins with an influencer in a central position of a network is likely to spread rapidly.”

With a rumour, the researchers recommend journalists and news organizations to ask:

  • Where did this rumour originate (a social media account, website, celebrity, or elected official)?
  • Is the rumour currently limited to just a few posts or statements by its original source? Or is it moving beyond that original source to other social media accounts, websites, or other sources?
  • If spreading, how much engagement has the rumour received thus far? Has the rumour reached nano- or micro- influencers (social media all-stars with 5,000 to 50,000 followers) within specific social networks? Has it reached the megaphones of high-follower social media accounts or media outlets with substantial audiences? Has its spread been mostly limited to a specific community within one platform? Is it spreading widely across many communities within one platform? Is it spreading across multiple platforms and communities?

The blog is written by Kate Starbird, associate professor at the University of Washington and co-founder of UW’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP); Mike Caulfield is a misinformation researcher at CIP; Renée DiResta is research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory; Emma Spiro is an associate professor at the University of Washington; Madeline Jalbert is a postdoc at CIP; Michael Grass is the communications director at CIP.


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