From Viral to Vicious - The Psychology of Rumours and Gossip in the Age of Social Media
The dissipation of rumours and gossip has been a ubiquitous aspect of human communication since time immemorial, but the advent of social networks has fostered their expeditious and widespread dissemination. Within the milieu of social networks, rumours and gossip acquire a life of their own, steering people's perceptions, beliefs, and behaviours. Ergo, they are a momentous and indispensable phenomenon that warrants psychological investigation.
Rumours and gossip are types of information that are promulgated through informal channels such as conversations, social media posts, and text messages. Rumours are ill-founded titbits of information that are traded among individuals with scant or no evidence to bolster their veracity. Gossip, on the other hand, designates the circulation of information about other people's private lives, oftentimes without their cognizance or sanction.
The nature of rumours and gossip
Rumours and gossip have a unique nature that distinguishes them from other forms of information sharing, and they are ubiquitous in social networks. Some of the most prominent characteristics of rumours and gossip include sensationalism, ambiguity, and spreadability.
Sensationalism is a common feature of rumours and gossip, as they often involve provocative or shocking information that captures people's attention. Scandals, celebrities, and shocking events are examples of topics that can trigger this sensationalism. The more sensational the information is, the more likely it is to be shared.
Rumours and gossip are also characterized by ambiguity and the lack of clear evidence or sources. This aspect of them makes them intriguing and open to interpretation, leading to increased interest and speculation.
Spreadability is another characteristic of rumours and gossip. They are highly contagious and can spread rapidly through social networks. This is because they are often shared informally, without traditional media filters or fact-checking mechanisms.
Despite the potential negative effects of rumours and gossip, they remain incredibly appealing to people. Social bonding is one reason for this. Rumours and gossip can create a sense of social bonding among individuals who share them. By participating in the spread of information, people can feel like they are part of an exclusive community or network.
Entertainment value is another factor that contributes to the appeal of rumours and gossip. They can be entertaining and provide a welcome distraction from the mundane aspects of daily life. They can offer a sense of excitement, drama, and even humour.
Curiosity is a third reason for their appeal. Humans are naturally curious beings; rumours and gossip can satisfy this curiosity by providing a glimpse into other people's lives and experiences.
Rumours and gossip differ from other types of information sharing in several ways. Unlike formal news sources or academic articles, rumours and gossip are typically shared informally, through personal conversations, social media posts, and other informal channels. Additionally, rumours and gossip are often inaccurate or incomplete, lacking credible sources or evidence. They also reflect the biases, opinions, and perspectives of the individuals who share them, unlike objective news reporting or scientific research, which strive to be as impartial and objective as possible.
Why rumours and gossip spread
Rumours and gossip, two terms that are often uttered in hushed tones, possess the power to spread like wildfire in social networks. Their accuracy and impact are often relegated to the back burner as they speedily permeate through the collective consciousness of the masses. The reasons for their proliferation are multifarious, stemming from a confluence of emotional, social, and psychological factors.
Emotional arousal is one such factor. The ability of rumours and gossip to elicit strong emotional responses such as surprise, anger, or disgust serves to make them stick in people's minds. These heightened emotional states result in an increased likelihood of people remembering and sharing the information, thereby contributing to the rapid spread of these salacious titbits.
Uncertainty and ambiguity create another avenue for rumours and gossip to gain momentum. During times of crisis or change, the human psyche is often left grappling with uncertainty, leading to an increased susceptibility to rumours and gossip. In such situations, rumours, and gossip act as a salve to the uncertainties of the moment, offering some respite to individuals in the form of an explanation, no matter how spurious it may be.
Social influence’s role in spreading rumours and gossip cannot be overlooked. Social networks offer an environment that is conducive to the propagation of rumours and gossip. Individuals are more susceptible to the opinions and actions of their peers, leading to the sharing of rumours and gossip to fit in with a particular group or signal their own status or importance.
The self-reinforcing nature of rumours and gossip is yet another aspect that contributes to their proliferation. The more they are shared, the more they are believed, and the more they are believed, the more they are shared. Thus, rumours and gossip can take on a life of their own, becoming more distorted with each retelling, like a game of Chinese whispers.
The reasons behind the propagation of rumours and gossip are equally complex. Social bonding is one such reason, whereby the sharing of rumours and gossip creates a sense of community and belonging among individuals. The allure of satisfying one's curiosity about the lives and experiences of others is another reason. Finally, some individuals seek to spread rumours and gossip to garner attention and boost their social status, signalling their influence and importance.
The effects of rumours and gossip
The consequences of rumours and gossip are far-reaching, with potential positive and negative effects on individuals and social networks. While they may generate a sense of social bonding and connectedness among those who participate in them, they can also have detrimental effects that include reputational damage, social exclusion, and the dissemination of misleading information.
On one hand, rumours and gossip can serve as a vehicle for creating a shared experience or sense of community among people who might otherwise not interact. Moreover, they can create a feeling of intimacy among friends or acquaintances, or even serve as a form of entertainment or distraction from the monotony of daily life.
On the other hand, rumours and gossip can have detrimental effects on individuals and society at large. For instance, they can lead to the spread of misinformation and the distortion of reality, which can result in harmful and inaccurate beliefs. Furthermore, rumours and gossip can have repercussions, including reputational damage, social exclusion, and legal or financial consequences. In extreme cases, they may even escalate into harassment or violence.
The effects of rumours and gossip are driven by a multitude of psychological mechanisms. One crucial factor is social comparison, which involves assessing oneself in relation to others. When rumours and gossip centre on other people's accomplishments or setbacks, they can trigger feelings of envy or schadenfreude, respectively, which may then lead to social exclusion or hostility toward the person involved.
Cognitive biases also contribute to the impact of rumours and gossip. For example, confirmation bias predisposes people to seek out and recall information that aligns with their existing beliefs or opinions. This can perpetuate rumours and gossip, even when they are untrue. Furthermore, the availability heuristic can cause individuals to overestimate the likelihood of events that are easily recalled, such as rumours or sensational stories.
Continued exploration of the psychology of rumours and gossip can provide a more nuanced understanding of their impact and pave the way for healthier communication practices in social networks.