The glut of celebrity death hoaxes during the past week has been a textbook case of how rumors spread. It's a great example of collective behavior in action. As such, the death rumors provide an opportunity for journalists to discuss some of the things scholars have learned about the spread of rumors during the past fifty years of research. Unfortunately, the insights of social psychologists don't seem to be getting much coverage. Instead, journalists are focusing on the rumors as an internet phenomenon. See this CNN article
as an example. It warns us that:
The situation is calling attention to the changing state of the news media: As information online moves faster and comes from more sources, it's more difficult to verify what's true and what may be shockingly false...
Others say the fake deaths, or "death pranks," show an inherent problem with the decentralization of news on the Internet.
This seems like a non-issue to me. Rumors are an ancient phenomenon. The internet is simply the technology people are using to communicate them nowadays. And while the internet does allow information to spread faster, from more sources, it also allows misinformation to be debunked faster. Before the internet people found many other 'decentralized' ways of spreading rumors: fax, telephone, college radio stations, letters, corner drugstores, or word of mouth. The technology has changed, but human behavior remains the same.
If I were a journalist, these are some of the points about rumors I would try to highlight:
- Rumors spread most during situations that are confusing or ambiguous and in which there's a mood of collective excitement. People want more information, and that information isn't available. So they look to alternative sources.
- There are always alternative sources of information. The supply of information is never centralized. Social groups (such as teenagers) tend to establish their own communication networks, and they'll turn to those if they're not getting what they want from mainstream sources. In 1969, when the Paul is Dead rumor was spreading, young people relied on college radio and college newspapers to spread the rumor. Today they rely on twitter.
- Rumors don't spread randomly. Instead, they tend to follow along social lines. The recent rumors have spread among young people using twitter.
- Status seeking is an important motive in why people spread these rumors. Being able to pass along new information makes people feel important in the eyes of their friends, even if the information later turns out to be bogus. Similarly, pranksters like to make up these hoaxes to gain approval from their social groups.
- Rumors often serve as a form of entertainment and emotional release. It gives people a way to project their anxieties onto the world. In fact, rumors often spread without being believed, which seems to be the case with the recent death hoaxes. An Australian news station fell for the Jeff Goldblum rumor, but the majority of twitter users seem to have expressed doubt about the rumors as they simultaneously repeated them. Ironically, those debunking the rumors have spread them far further than have those who actually believed them.
All of these are standard observations about rumors that you can find in most social psychology textbooks. But like I said, it's not what journalists are focusing on.