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The Epistemology of Rumours

8 January 2024

Rumours disrupt official lines of communication and can derail policy. During the 2013 – 2016 West African Ebola outbreak, rumours were that medics were stealing bodies to be sold for parts on the international organ market. In response, people kept their sick loved ones at home. In South Africa, in the mid-2000s, HIV/AIDS treatment finally became publicly available after a protracted battle to access medication, but rumours were that “testing programmes” were a cover for agents of the old racist apartheid regime to spread disease rather than treat it. This led to trepidation and initial resistance. In Uganda, in the early 2000s, many refused to participate in a mass anti-parasitic treatment scheme. At the time, rumours were that the Ugandan and American governments were in cahoots to reduce African birth rates, and that the anti-parasitic would lead to infertility and miscarriages. Given that rumours are such a problem for these large-scale interventions, what exactly are they and what is their epistemic status?

Rumours are unofficial nuggets of information that we pass between each other. There is nothing “official” to underwrite their credibility. They are unlikely to come from the experts, and they aren’t the kind of stories we share with people we consider to be above us in the social pecking order – we share rumours with our friends and neighbours, but not our priests or professors. They are the ultimate form of peer testimony.

Rumours are different from gossip, because rumours tend to focus more on issues of public concern. A rumour concerns a new disease testing programme. Gossip, on the other hand, tends to focus on the personal – who exactly is Taylor Swift dating at the moment and how long will it last?

Rumours are also different from conspiracy theories, even though some rumours might be also be conspiratorial, like the one about Ugandan and American governments cooperating to reduce African birth rates. On Quassim Cassam’s philosophical account of conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories are obviously wrong and those who hold them are contrarian. It is not clear that the people involved in our cases are either of these things. Those deciding whether it is safe to take their loved ones to the Ebola treatment centre aren’t being ‘contrarian’, they are afraid. And it isn’t clear that the beliefs that they hold are obviously wrong. In the South Africa, where people were frightened that medics might be spreading AIDS as part of a racist plot, there had been an actual biological weapons programme (Project Coast) under the apartheid government and debates about whether HIV could act as a raced bioweapon.

Even though rumours aren’t the same as gossip or conspiracy theories, they get a bad rap in epistemology. They seem an obviously bad way of getting information about the world. Some early psychological studies back this up. Allport and Postman’s 1948 classic, The Psychology of Rumor, studied Second World War rumours and under experimental conditions found that they operate a lot like a children’s game of ‘broken telephones’ – the information gets garbled as it gets transmitted along the rumour chain. But it isn’t clear that this is how rumours operate in the wild. In reality, we tend to know more about the people we are talking to and we may interact with them more than just the once off of an experiment. This can act as a pressure to pass on good information, because we don’t want to ruin our reputations. But this only works if we know who we are talking to.

Online rumour mongering is a whole different ballgame. Not only does the anonymity of the internet mean that we lose out on the reputational risks that nudge us toward sharing good information, but the novelty of falsity leads to more and quicker transmission of untrue stories. One study showed that false stories could reach up to 100,000 people compared to true stories maxing out at around 1,000. It also took the true stories substantially longer to get shares than the false ones.

While the online nature of much rumour sharing has its problems, rumours on the internet are more amenable to tracking than their orally-transmitted counterparts (who, after all, has access to the chatter of the local knitting group?). This is useful. Given the grassroots level at which rumours operate, they are often the first indicator that something is going on. This can be extremely important for things like epidemic preparedness. One way to know that a disease outbreak has occurred is to wait for patients to start showing up at clinics, but this involves delays and there are plenty of reasons why people might not make it to medical facilities, assuming that there is a clinic to make it to. In the West African Ebola outbreak, there were rumours of strange deaths long before people started arriving for care. Knowing how useful it is to pay attention to rumours, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set up a rumour monitoring network in 1997, precisely to make sure that they can be alerted to potential issues before official data is available. Note that it doesn’t matter whether disease rumours are getting the story exactly right; it is simply helpful to know that there is something to pay attention to.

Getting too hung up on whether rumours are passing on literally true information might also miss the point. How much of our communication is about exchanging bits of literal truth? When we actually talk to each other, we often bend the truth to make for a more entertaining or amusing story, or to make the moral of the story stick. And we are often aware that what we are being told is not completely true. It might be less important that the witch does not really live in a gingerbread house in the forest, than it is to remember not to stray into the woods alone.


Photo: Uganda by Richard Stupart