On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done

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9780809094738: On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done

Book by Sunstein, Cass R.

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About the Author:

Cass R. Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School (on leave). His previous books include Republic.com and Infotopia; he coauthored Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Problem
Rumors are nearly as old as human history, but with the rise of the Internet, they have become ubiquitous. In fact we ..tions, and they often resist correction. They can threaten careers, policies, public officials, and sometimes even democracy itself.
Many of the most pervasive rumors involve famous .panies, large and small. Still others involve people who are not at all in the public eye. All of us are potential victims of rumors, including false and vicious ones.
In the 2008 election, many Americans believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim, that he was not born in the United States, and that he “pals around with terrorists.” Rumors are pervasive about the allegedly terrible acts, beliefs, and motivations of public officials and about the allegedly scandalous private lives not only of those officials, but also of many other people with a high public profile. Rumors can harm the economy as well. If it is rumored that a company is about to fail, stockholders might well be frightened, and they might sell. Because of the rumor, the company might be seriously harmed. Rumors can and do affect the stock market itself, even if they are baseless. It should not be entirely surprising that the Securities and Exchange Commission has taken a keen interest in the pernicious effects of false rumors, and that New York has made it a crime to circulate false rumors about the financial status of banks.
In the era of the Internet, it has become easy to spread false or misleading rumors about almost anyone. A high school student, a salesperson, a professor, a banker, an employer, an insurance broker, a real estate agent—each of .ful, damaging, or even devastating effect. If an allegation of misconduct appears on the Internet, those who Google the .tion will help to define the person. (It might even end up on Wikipedia, at least for a time.) The rumor can involve .gence Agency, General Motors, Bank of America, the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church. Material on the Internet has considerable longevity. For all practical purposes, it may even be permanent. For this reason, a false rumor can have an enduring effect.
This small book has two goals. The first is to answer these questions: Why do ordinary human beings accept rumors, even false, destructive, and bizarre ones? Why do some groups, and even nations, accept rumors that other groups and nations deem preposterous? The second is to answer this question: What can we do to protect ourselves against the harmful effects of false rumors? As we shall see, part of the answer lies in recognizing that a “chilling effect” on those who would spread destructive falsehoods can be an excellent idea.
We will also see that when people believe rumors, the believers are often perfectly rational, in the sense that their belief is quite sensible in light of their existing knowledge. We lack direct or personal knowledge about the facts that underlie most of our judgments. How do you know that the .ter is made of atoms? That the Holocaust actually occurred? That Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy? .ple, other nations, other cultures, other religions. We rarely know for sure whether a particular company is in terrible trouble, or whether a particular public official has taken a bribe, or whether an influential person has a terrible secret agenda or a shameful incident in her past. Lacking personal knowledge, we tend to think that where there is smoke, there is fire—or that a rumor would not have spread unless it was at least partly true. Perhaps the truth is even worse than the rumor. Certainly we should be cautious before entrusting our nation or our company to the hands of someone who is rumored to have said or done bad things. Our willingness to think in this way causes special problems when we rely on the Internet for our information, simply because false rumors are so pervasive there.
There is no settled definition of rumors, and I will not attempt to offer one here. To get the discussion off the ground, let us acknowledge the crudeness of any definition, put semantic debates to one side, and take the term to refer roughly to claims of fact—about people, groups, events, and institutions—that have not been shown to be true, but that .ity not because direct evidence is known to support them, .stood, rumors often arise and gain traction because they fit with, and support, the prior convictions of those who accept them. Some people and some groups are predisposed to .ible with their self-interest, or with what they think they know to be true. In 2008, many Americans were prepared to believe that Governor Sarah Palin thought that Africa .ulous confusion fit with what they already thought about Governor Palin. Other people were predisposed to reject the same rumor as probably baseless. Exposure to the same information spurred radically different beliefs.
Many of us accept false rumors because of either our fears or our hopes. Because we fear al-Qaeda, we are inclined to believe that its members are plotting an attack .pany will prosper, we might believe a rumor that its new product cannot fail and that its prospects are about to soar. In the context of war, one group’s fears are unmistakably another group’s hopes—and whenever groups compete, the fears of some are the hopes of others. Because rumors fuel some fears and alleviate others, radically different reactions to the same rumor are inevitable. The citizens of Iraq may accept a rumor that has no traction in Canada or France. Those in Utah may accept a rumor that seems preposterous .crats ridicule. And to the extent that the Internet enables people to live in information cocoons, or echo chambers of their own design, different rumors will become entrenched in different communities.
Many rumors spread conspiracy theories.1 Consider the rumor that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; that doctors deliberately manufactured the AIDS virus; that the ..erate fraud; that the Trilateral Commission is responsible for important movements of the international economy; that Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed by federal agents; that the plane crash that killed the Democratic senator Paul Wellstone was engineered by Republican politicians; that the moon landing was staged; that the Rothschilds and .dents and for economic distress in Asian nations; and that the Great Depression was a result of a plot by wealthy people to reduce the wages of workers.2 Or consider the work of the French author Thierry Meyssan, whose book 9/11: The Big Lie became a bestseller and a sensation for its claims that the Pentagon explosion on 9/11 was caused by a missile, fired as the opening salvo of a coup d’état by the military-industrial complex, rather than by American Airlines Flight 77.3
Rumors spread through two different but overlapping processes: social cascades and group polarization. Cascades occur because each of us tends to rely on what other people think and do. If most of the people we know believe a rumor, we tend to believe it too. Lacking information of our own, we accept the views of others. When the rumor involves a topic on which we know nothing, we are especially likely to believe it. If the National Rifle Association spreads a rumor that a political candidate wants to “confiscate guns,” or if an environmental organization spreads a rumor that someone believes that climate change is “a hoax,” many people will be affected, because they tend to believe the National Rifle Association or the environmental organization.
A cascade occurs when a group of early movers, sometimes called bellwethers, say or do something and other people fol­low their signal. In the economy, rumors can fuel speculative bubbles, greatly inflating prices, and indeed speculative bub­bles help to account for the financial crisis of 2008. Rumors are also responsible for many panics, as fear spreads rapidly from one person to another, creating self-fulfilling prophe­cies. And if the relevant rumors trigger strong emotions, such as fear and disgust, they are far more likely to spread.
Group polarization refers to the fact that when like-minded people get together, they often end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk to one another.4 Suppose that members of a certain group are inclined to accept a rumor about, say, the malevolent intentions of a certain nation. In all likeli­hood, they will become more committed to that rumor after they have spoken among themselves. Indeed, they may have moved from being tentative believers to being absolutely certain that the rumor is true, even though all they know is what other group members think. Consider the role of the Internet here: any one of us might receive numerous com­munications from many of us, and when we receive those communications, we might think that whatever is being said must be true. 
What can be done to reduce the risk that cascades and polarization will lead people to accept false rumors? The most obvious answer, and the standard one, involves the system of free expression: people should be exposed to bal­anced information and to corrections from those who know the truth. Freedom usually works, but in some contexts, it is an i...

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