Jun 182013 0 Responses

The Anatomy of a Rumor: Living Truthfully in a Facebook World

They were never scheduled to come. There wasn’t a single shred of evidence they would be here. Yet the truth didn’t prevent the rumors from spreading.

But how?

How did a rumor spread so quickly and with such force that no one could stop it?


Over the weekend, Community Bible Church hosted a funeral for SPC Robert Allan Pierce who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. It was a great honor to assist the family in the midst of a tragic time.

A few days before the funeral it was mentioned a group might protest the funeral.

This group often lists events on their webpage as locations of protest, but they rarely show up. They know that by listing the event they will get the attention they want.

A quick search of the group’s website revealed no mention of the funeral, but did list another soldier’s funeral in a different state as a possible protest site.

While it is always possible for a surprise protest, no reasonable evidence caused us to believe the funeral would be protested.

The Anatomy of a Rumor

With no evidence existing, why did the rumor spread?

With the truth so accessible, why did people so easily believe the lie?

Several aspects were at play which led to the spread of the rumor.

I think the rumor began like this:

Someone said it might happen. It was a legitimate thought to believe the protest could occur. This group has protested other funerals. The funeral was someone close in proximity to the group’s home. The threat to protest a fellow soldier’s funeral on the same day meant it was possible.

Someone said it will happen. Whenever someone says it might happen, it doesn’t take long for someone else to say it will happen. Tell 7 people something might happen and at least one of those people will get loose with their words and will change the “might” to “will.” It’s the nature of humanity. This progression from “might” to “will” is the reason we always need to be careful about the context in which we say out loud that something might happen. We can speak in hypothetical for as long as those we are speaking to understand the hypothetical nature of the event. But as soon as it is said to someone who doesn’t have access to verification or doesn’t desire to verify the information, “might” turns to “will.”

The small change from “might” to “will” seems so minor, but it is the difference between someone brainstorming possibilities and a vast number of people believing a lie. That small transition is how a rumor is born.

Why are we so susceptible to rumors?

Two characteristics make us more likely to believe rumors:

If we want something to happen, we are more likely to believe it will. This is why people buy lottery tickets. The chances of winning are almost non-existent, but since we desire to win, we overlook the facts and convince ourselves we could be the one. One thing which went unsaid during the preparation for the funeral was the number of people who truly wanted the protestors to protest. While everyone said they didn’t want them to appear, many people secretly hoped it would happen. They wanted protestors, because they wanted a tangible way to express their support for the family. One characteristic of grief is anger. The loss of a soldier on a battlefield leads to anger, but it is an anger which is difficult to express in healthy ways. If protestors showed up, people would feel justified in expressing anger toward them. It would feel like an act of service to God, country, and a grieving family. It would not be an act of service to any three, but it would feel like one.

We are more likely to believe (and tell) what is most interesting. If we hear two contrasting possibilities, we are more likely to believe the most interesting of the two. Even if we don’t fully believe it, we are far more likely to tell the most interesting of the two options. “A soldier has died and no one is protesting” is far less interesting than “a soldier has died and some people have lost their minds by deciding to protest his funeral.” The second story is more interesting and therefore is more likely to be believed and repeated.

Lessons Learned

A few lessons can be learned from this past weekend and how we deal with truth, rumors, and living in a Facebook world where information lacks authority and context.

1. The more interesting a story sounds, the less likely we should be to believe it. If something sounds unbelievable, we should be skeptical toward what we are hearing. This doesn’t mean we believe people are lying. It does mean we privately analyze what we are being told and we always assume: we aren’t hearing all the facts, the story is exaggerated, and there is another explanation to what we are being told.

2. Always verify what you have been told before repeating it. This is a great aspect of the world in which we live. While we can’t verify every fact with 100% accuracy, we do live in a world where we can often find legitimate sources with great ease. A simple Google search or text message to the right source can often squash most rumors. No national story from Facebook should be shared or forwarded without a quick search of Snopes. Local stories can often be verified through direct messaging of individuals involved. For a week, many people called our church and asked if protestors where coming. With one phone call, we were able to set the record straight and say there was no evidence they would be present.

3. Understand your words have power. The upside of the world in which we live is that a person doesn’t have to be famous to have influence. The downside to the world in which we live is that anyone can call themselves an expert. Act as though you are an old-fashioned reporter. Be slow to report and only do so when you are certain your words are true.

No Harm, No Foul

The great news about the rumor of protest is that it did very little harm. Hopefully the family had little knowledge of the rumors because of everything they were dealing with. For the rest of us, it created some hectic days, but without any injury. The good news is that our community showed tremendous support for the grieving family. My hope is that the support was not increased because of the rumors, but was simply the natural way we grieve our fallen heroes in this part of the country.

No matter the situation, we can learn some valuable lessons from the rumors and hopefully not repeat some of our mistakes.

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