The Business of rumours
By Ravi Bamunusinghe
The people are either receptive or vulnerable to rumours on a
daily basis depending on the scale of the rumor and the momentum
it gathers. Rumours can be ‘mundane’ or ‘grand’. People hear
mundane rumours on day to day life from their neighbourhood,
office or any other socially interactive situations. The grand
rumours are significant for its believability, momentum and
interest it generates among a larger community.
The rumours become a topic of interest when it surpasses any
advertising budget in terms of reach and frequency where
advertising being measured. Hence the question is whether
rumours have the basics to be a module of communication. If so,
it is worth to explore rumours or word of mouth for its positive
and negative connotations.
Even though there are recent rumours to discuss, in order to
explore the concept of rumours it is appropriate to mention two
of the grand rumours in the recent past. The rumor of the ‘Budu
Ras” the aura of rays emanating from Buddha statues, and the
death of LTTE leader Prabahkaran in the Tsunami are an
indication of scale and momentum of a rumor. Whether one
believed these two messages or not is subjective and what is
important is to understand the process of believing and
disbelieving to find out possible use of rumours for Marketing
How have anthropologists and sociologists defined rumours?
Allport and Postman explain a rumor as “a specific (or topical)
proposition for belief, passed along from person to person,
usually by word of mouth, without secure evidence being
present”. Peterson and Gist refer to a rumor as “an unverified
account or explanation of events circulating from person to
person and pertaining to an object or issue of public concern”.
Finally Knapp sees rumours as “a proposition for belief of
topical reference disseminated without official verification”.
The key words in these definitions are: A proposition, Belief,
Person to Person, Public Concern, Insecure Evidence, Unverified
and Unofficial. Therefore any message that we receive has some
of these aspects which can be considered as a rumor.
The characteristics of rumours are intriguing as in most rumours
it is first heard from a distant person who had actually
experienced or heard the incident of public concern. The degree
of believability occurs on the receiver’s frame of mind on the
issue and source credibility. If the receiver’s sentiments are
congruent to the proposition it will have possibilities to
generate momentum. Interestingly, in most situations there is a
possibility to add on the receiver’s feelings and imaginations
on the issue either subconsciously or intentionally. This may
add flavor to the rumor.
Then the question arises whether people generally verify
information they receive. In most situations it is not verified
as they have the confidence with the source, such as the
newspaper or a trusted friend. Hence there is a possibility to
receive the message by people who can be vulnerable to the
imagination of the intermediary before they relay the story to a
During World War II, the recommendations made by Knapp to
discourage spreading of rumours are interesting. They also
reveal difficulties that one could face due to rumours. The
summary of the recommendations are:
1) Public must have total confidence in the official media
(press, radio and television) so as not to be tempted to seek
2) Public must have total faith in its leaders and confidence
that its government is doing its best to solve problems brought
on by crisis and war. Everything possible must be done to avoid
distrust and suspicion which only serve to feed the rumours.
3) When something happens, a maximum quantity of information
should be disseminated as quickly as possible. Rumours arise
from spontaneous questions the public asks itself to which no
answers are provided. They satisfy the need to understand
events, in the cases where events do not speak for themselves.
4) Broadcasting information provide no guarantee that it will be
received; one must thus ensure that official reports be heard by
everyone. Pockets of ignorance must be eliminated.
5) As boredom give rise to interest in the slightest little
rumours that dispel monotony, it is important to secure the
population from idleness through work and the organization of
In the current day context this could be familiar to some.
However, since World War II the evolvement of the societies and
technology is such that the management of the rumours may not be
as straightforward. The possible reasons are:
1) Societies are bombarded with alternate sources of information
2) Alternative sources are seemingly believable
3) Lack of credibility of state communication due to perceived
4) Opportunities to chat in state and corporate management
5) The receptiveness to entertainment value (if any) of the
Therefore, the question arises how the rumours have the power to
gain momentum. An American Sociologist Shibutani explains that
“the rumours are improvised news resulting from a process of
collective discussion” and introduced a simple formula as
Rumours are product of Importance and Ambiguity. R = Importance
This explains the unprecedented momentum gathered on rumor of
‘Budu Ras’ and ‘Prabhakaran’. These rumours were important to us
both spiritually and/or socially. The information received is
ambiguous with the inadequacy of verification. The process had
enough opportunities to collective discussions which were fuel
Then the question comes how rumours stop its momentum? Kapferer
is of the view that “when someone is convinced by a message
recounted by a friend or consequence, he believes it is
information that he has at hand. Should he be seized by doubt,
however, he will quickly qualify the same message as a rumor.
There lies the paradox. Once a rumor is qualified as a ‘rumor’
by the public, it stops spreading. On the other hand, when the
public does not recognise it as such, it can go on spreading”.
Therefore, the same rumor can be true to one and false to the
other and accordingly spread through the community. In most
situations the public may not be able to distinguish truth from
false. Hence each rumor has its own target audience.
The affected institutions or parties naturally tend to control
spreading of the rumor as it can have adverse effect on
credibility that could lead to financial and/or image loss. Some
of the following methods are adopted by affected parties to
mitigate the impact of the rumor:
1) Train the staff of the institute to respond to inquiries with
a carefully worded message. If necessary, increase the number of
telephone lines to handle the queries
2) Post an official mail, countering the rumor to all the
3) Use communication channels to inform the true picture of the
4) Seek the assistance of the Police to track the cause or
originator of the rumor
5) Generate a counter rumor
According to Kapferer, the denials have a number of handicaps as
to their value on the information supply and demand:
1) They do not constitute hot news. They are expected to.
Someone who is attacked says (or someone else says for him), “I
am innocent. ”What constitutes real, surprising, unexpected news
is when the accused says, “Yes. I did”.
2) Denials are cold, almost kill-joy information. They defuse
the imagination, plunging us back into the banally of reality.
Denials suppress stories of whose truth we are altogether not
sure, but which are in any case have an effect when they are
told, spurring on a wide variety of commentaries and passionate
Hence handling rumours by the affected parties is a challenge.
The aspects that need to consider is the ambiguous nature (Shibutani)
of a rumor, the perceived lack of credibility of the official
statement and the limitations in denials. Since counter rumours
could lead to further ambiguity through possible confusion, a
way to handle the rumor is by inducing sense into the recipient
of the rumor as rumor looses its power if doubt is greater.
Therefore, the rumor is not a rumor if people perceived it as a
rumor. How could one achieve this?
Controlled collective discussions are a way to handle rumours.
The controlling aspect of the collective discussion is
1) After careful analysis of the nature of the rumor, initiate a
series of discussions in possible localities of the origin of
2) Identify the target audience(s) and select possible Informal
Opinion Leaders (IOLs) from the community. Since opinion leaders
are difficult to identify, the selection is based on
assumptions. One good measure is selecting from the community
those who consent to attend collective discussions.
3) The discussion to be moderated with an intention of
introducing the rationale of the rumor at the receiving stage.
Hence, the moderator to have a well thought out series of
questions in order to probe. That breaks the direct reaction to
The proposed method is appropriate as it is using the same
mechanism of rumours, which are collective discussions. Further,
it uses the opinion leaders from the same community who could
trigger the rumor had they not attended the collective
discussions. However, the key difference of Controlled
Collective Discussions (CCDs) is its two-way communication
capability. The CCDs can be conducted in such a manner that the
experience of each discussion will shape the subsequent
discussions (Grounded Theory). In the process, there is a
possibility to get close to the nucleus of the rumor that could
provide insights to counter the current rumor constructively and
possible avoidance of future rumours. Further, the
identification of IOLs is beneficial to be used as brand
ambassador of your brand, political party or cause.
A concluding thought is, should we conduct CCDs on the rumours
of ‘Budu Ras’ and ‘Prabhakaran’? It is subject to what the
reader expects. This depicts the robustness of rumours and
limitations that one could face in countering rumours.
Writer is a Social and Market Researcher who has an interest in
alternative communication methods. The writer is crediting
Kapferer in the preparation of the article.