Where there's a rumor, there's an audience. This study sheds light on why some take off

How likely you are to believe a rumor has nothing to do with your education, gender or where you live — and everything to do with the rumor itself.

That’s according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University and New York University, which examined how people view rumors in conflict zones. Kelly Greenhill, associate professor and director of the International Relations Program at Tufts, told Poynter the study disposes with traditional wisdom about which groups are more likely to believe unverified information.

“There aren’t certain classes of mentally compromised individuals who are more receptive (to rumors). What matters is whether or not the rumor nestles neatly within someone’s worldview,” said Greenhill, the study’s co-author.

“It’s about the content of the rumor and the social and political context into which it's introduced.”

Researchers found that demographic information like education, income, age and gender was a poor indicator of whether or not respondents adopted rumors. Instead, three factors emerged as important to rumor receptivity: worldview, threat perception and prior exposure. 

The article’s findings, published in International Studies Quarterly, are based on survey data collected from two insurgency-affected areas: southern Thailand and Mindanao, Philippines. The two situations are comparable for their long-running civil wars and insurrections by ethnic minority groups, according to the study.

The surveys date back to 2012 and were conducted as in-person interviews at participants’ homes. The southern Thailand sample included 1,600 respondents from conflict zones, in addition to 400 from a comparatively peaceful area, while the Mindanao sample included 1,500 respondents. Each was asked whether they’d heard a rumor and to what extent they believed it, with researchers using one security-related rumor and one economic-related rumor from each country.

Rumor table
(Screenshot from the study)

The more respondents felt in danger, were repeatedly exposed to a rumor and/or saw one that coincided with their preconceived beliefs, the more likely they were to believe it. Ben Oppenheim, a non-resident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation and the study’s co-author, said that goes against widely held notions that psychology is the end-all, be-all when it comes to whether or not someone believes unverified information.

“Quite a lot of previous work attempts to locate receptivity in psychological attributes in humans,” said Oppenheim. “Our findings and our theory really push back against that. The evidence that we generated suggests that a different set of mechanisms are at play.”

And that finding has an important lesson — both for media consumers and fact-checking organizations.

“For any given rumor, there’s an audience. Even you — there’s a rumor you’ll believe,” said Greenhill, who's also a research fellow for Harvard University's International Security Program. “You can’t make broad generalizations about the audiences for information.”

At the same time, she said the study found that rumors were more likely to resonate with people during times of crisis than during times of peace. That conclusion builds on past research about the effect of uncertainty on people’s predisposition to misinformation, including recent work by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College on the efficacy of corrective information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That study found that feeling a lack of control positively correlated with historical misperception.

While Greenhill and Oppenheim’s study was conducted specifically within the context of two conflict zones in Southeast Asia, both said they feel confident that the findings are broadly generalizable. Oppenheim said the underlying factors they found to affect rumor receptivity the most — sense of security, prior beliefs and repetition — commonly exist around the world, and therefore he’d expect the findings to remain relatively consistent. 

At the same time, Oppenheim said one limitation of the study is the question of how much extreme insecurity affects people’s rumor consumption. Greenhill said she’d like to see the experiment repeated in other countries in order to gather more data.

“We should definitely undertake more studies to look for more cross-national variation,” she said.

Regardless, the study contains an interesting precaution for those working on dispelling rumors and misinformation around the world.

“Anyone could be susceptible to a rumor based on their own set of pre-existing beliefs and the context in which they find themselves,” Oppenheim said. “We can’t just dismiss conspiracy theories and rumor-mongering as a fringe problem where only a small share of crazy people are going to be susceptible.”

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