Loose Lips: The Psychology of Rumor During Crisis

There is little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as the year that the novel coronavirus spread across the world, bringing travel, the economy, business, and life as we know it to an abrupt halt. With no vaccine or treatments currently available and a lack of knowledge of how the virus will behave, there is no definitive timeline for a return to normalcy. It is not surprising that many of us, sheltered in our homes, are trying to make sense of these very strange times, seeking information to help us cope, prepare, and plan.

Unfortunately, some of the information we find in this search may be little more than rumor. With the spread of the virus came the rampant spread of rumors from many sources: news media, social media, neighbors, and websites. Some of these are harmless. Perhaps you read of dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice, taking up the space previously inhabited by boats. Some are wishful, like those indicating a vaccine will be available in the next few months or that gargling with salt water will stop the virus from entering the lungs. Others are divisive, like those stating that China deliberately manufactured the virus as a biological weapon. I am guessing you heard at least one of these rumors; none of them are true.

Research on rumor has an interesting history, rooted in the crisis of World War II. Examining this history provides a platform for thinking about why rumors proliferate in times of crisis and what social and behavioral science can tell us about how to control them.

Rumors in the current pandemic

Although the word rumor is used in a variety of ways, it generally refers to stories that circulate widely, without trustworthy verification or falsification. When someone shares a story they have heard, not knowing with certainty if it is true or false, they are said to be spreading a rumor. Rumors are often differentiated from disinformation, which usually refers to the deliberate spread of a story that is untrue. Misinformation refers to stories that are untrue, but without any assumption about whether the spread of such false information is deliberate. There is, of course, strong overlap between these categories, since both misinformation and disinformation can fuel a rumor chain.

Perhaps you’ve read of dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice, that a vaccine with be available in the next few months, or that gargling with salt water with stop the virus from entering the lungs—none of this is true.

According to a recent PEW poll, 48 percent of Americans have heard false information about COVID-19, and what’s more concerning, many Americans believe it. For example, the same PEW poll found that 23 percent of Americans believed that the virus was purposefully manufactured in a laboratory. Concerns about deliberate disinformation campaigns as the source of some COVID-19 rumors have also begun to surface. Specifically, there is evidence that both China and Russia have waged disinformation campaigns pointing to the United States as the origin of the virus, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsing the theory that it was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army.  

Rumor has become such a problem that several government agencies have developed websites and units devoted to rumor control. FEMA recently set up a “Coronavirus Rumor Control” page on its website to “help the public distinguish between rumors and facts.” There, they present a series of myths with corresponding facts that dispute them and point readers to trusted sources for more information.

FEMA is not alone. The Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Defense, and several news outlets have established similar pages, all devoted to quelling the spread of rumor.

Why are rumors spreading so rapidly during this pandemic, and do these methods of control work? A look back at a wartime rumor control initiative launched by psychologists might help answer these questions.

The wartime origins of rumor control

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American public entered a psychological situation similar to our current one. They were uncertain what the war would mean for them, when it would end, or how devastating it might be. They sought information that was often simply not available or, because of wartime censorship, not provided. They were anxious and uncertain and wary of the information they were receiving from the government and the news.

Soon after, rumors began to circulate. There were rumors of an imminent defeat or victory, government officials taking pleasure drives in a time of gasoline rationing, and the value of future war bonds. These rumors were concerning, since public support for the war and compliance with wartime restrictions was necessary. Further, there was concern that the growing rumor mill could help to spread enemy propaganda.

In 1942, psychologists established the first “Rumor Clinic” at Harvard University to combat rumors during WWII.

In 1942, psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp established the first “Rumor Clinic” at Harvard University to combat these rumors. The clinic revolved around a column published every Sunday in the Boston Daily Herald, where Allport and his team countered rumors sent in by readers. The rumor was printed and then debunked with a fact from a local expert. Scientists would then analyze the rumor, exploring the social and psychological functions it served in order to help the public understand why rumors were so rampant in wartime. The clinic also had volunteer “rumor wardens,” who went out into the community to listen for rumors and report them back. These wardens could often be found in hair salons or cafes, where small talk was common. The members of the Rumor Clinic also gave speeches and distributed pamphlets that counteracted and analyzed common rumors.

The Rumor Clinic model became a popular one. Less than a year after the Boston clinic was established, more than 50 additional clinics had popped up from San Francisco to New York City. The clinics remained active until wartime rumor began to dissipate in 1943.

Why rumor, why now?

The current pandemic and the rumor mill of World War II suggest that rumor arises in times of crisis, but why? In discussing the coronavirus, psychologist Steven Taylor has pointed to the uncertainty and significance of the situation, combined with the lack of information. He notes that when we are dealing with a situation of such importance and we don’t have as much information as we would like, rumor serves as an outlet for our anxiety and a method of filling gaps in our knowledge.

When we are dealing with a situation of such importance and we don’t have as much information as we would like, rumor serves as an outlet for our anxiety and a method of filling gaps in our knowledge.

Taylor’s analysis appears to be drawn from work done by Allport, Knapp, and others in World War II. After analyzing 1,100 wartime rumors, Allport and Postman created the “basic rumor formula”: r = I × A, expressing the idea that rumor is a direct function of importance and ambiguity. When faced with highly important but highly ambiguous situations, rumor will be rampant.

Knapp explored the psychological function of rumor, noting that a crisis like war “focuses and intensifies the emotional life of the public” and that “rumors arise to express these feelings.” He identified three kinds of rumors and the psychological functions that they serve. The current rumor about the Chinese laboratory manufacturing the virus, for example, would classify as a wedge driver rumor, a type of rumor that expresses existing hostilities and allows us to find a scapegoat in times of great frustration. Knapp also pointed to pipe dream rumors (like the rumor of a vaccine), which help us to express our hopes and wishes. Finally, bogie rumors express our fears, as in the recent rumor that the U.S. military is implementing martial law. All of these types of rumors indeed spread misinformation, but they help us process and make sense of an uncertain situation.

When faced with highly important but highly ambiguous situations, rumor will be rampant.

Rumors may provide an outlet for our heightened emotional life during crisis, but they nonetheless have dire consequences. This is evidenced by the recent shortage of antimalarial drugs and the death of an Arizona man who ingested a form of chloroquine to protect himself from the virus. Today’s rumor control experts face a different and much more daunting task than their 1940s counterparts, negotiating information legitimacy in a period of history where social media and constantly updated news feeds almost guarantee that a pandemic will fuel the spread of false information. The World Health Organization recently lamented the onset of a “coronavirus infodemic,” characterized by the rampant spread of rumor, myth, and misinformation via social media as well as more traditional media outlets. Indeed, much has changed in our information and communication landscape since the 1940s, but it appears that most agencies continue to rely on the methods crafted seven decades ago: squashing rumors with facts.

The effectiveness of this method of directly countering rumors with facts was debated during the War and continues to be debated today. While some research suggests that the direct counteraction of rumor with fact is successful, other research indicates that the effects of this approach are minimal and short-lived. Some scholars warn of a backfire effect, where exposing people to false misinformation, even to debunk it, actually increases belief. Recent research has, however, begun to explore the nuances of this method. In a recent review of the literature, D.J. Flynn, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler describe several factors that appear to make corrections more successful: for example, the use of professional fact-checkers or the presentation of facts in graphical rather than textual form. Recent research also suggests that direct refutation of rumor may succeed if the refutation comes from an unlikely political source in polarized environments. For example, Adam Berinsky demonstrated that a Republican refuting rumors about Barack Obama’s health care reform was more successful than the same refutation coming from a Democrat or a neutral source.

Rumors may provide an outlet for our heightened emotional life during crisis, but they nonetheless have dire consequences.

In addition, we are only just beginning to understand how rumor operates online and in social media networks. The World Health Organization has partnered with many of these companies—Facebook, Twitter, and Google—to consider ways of using them to combat pandemic misinformation. Several of these sites are actively blocking and removing misinformation, as was the case with a video in which Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the necessity of social distancing and promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment. Recent research suggests that social media networks can give rise to “rumor communities” that forcefully resist counterarguments. In these cases, understanding the group dynamics of rumor becomes as important as understanding the science of individual persuasion and belief.

It is clear that social and behavioral scientists have much to contribute to understanding the many variables at work in the spread of rumor. Perhaps, as we wade through this wave of misinformation, there is comfort in Robert Knapp’s optimism in 1994: “If we are to survive the rumor virus, we will have to learn fast … Can we control the ravages of rumor? I think we can if we try.”