the math of rumors

29 Feb

It only takes that one mistaken word or that suggestion/false accusation to ruin one’s reputation – and a possibly eternity to correct its damage.

In trying to decipher ways of conducting research on rumors, I actually discovered an interesting article on exactly that. The article is called Rumor Has It, and it’s in The Public Relations Strategist Summer 2007 issue. The whole issue actually deals with crisis management, and outlines actual cases and various problem-solving tools and methods.

The area that I found most compelling – was learning that there’s a science to rumors. You can actually control rumors mathematically if you so desired!

According to the article, under The Basic Law Of Rumor:

A formula for the intensity of rumor can be written like this: R˜ i x a

Rumor = subject importance to individuals x ambiguity of evidence pertaining to topic

Based on this equation if either variables are zero, then there is no rumor. This is because ambiguity alone cannot sustain a rumor. By the same rules, an ‘incremental decline’ in either can result in a ‘greater-than-incremental’ decline in the scope of the rumor. One could expand on that train of thought…and say the converse for the ‘incremental incline’.

The article hosts interesting laws, axioms and arguments that are both intriguing and logical – but suggesting that one can systematically control a rumor is quite a statement.

Question: would it provide ease at any stage?

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2 Responses to “the math of rumors”

  1. Jo. Chen March 2, 2008 at '18:04' #

    Impressive and logical, but personally, I think it’s not possible. Putting such subject matter into a mathematical formula is great for statistics and offers an explanation into the “how” of rumour production; however, it doesn’t mean it is foolproof. Science experiments are conducted in controlled environments, but rumours are never set in ideal conditions. The internet, IM, and social media make it impossible to stop the spread of a rumour once it starts, much less control it. The only defense against such crises is to monitor communications, inform publics consistently and constantly, and use the media where rumours are created to counteract negative messaging.

  2. staffeen thompson March 9, 2008 at '20:14' #

    Thanks for your post JC, I feel the same way. Once something has started how can one systematically control rumours, outside of telling the truth or creating new ones? Then you just have confusion and added speculation. Perhaps it depends on the nature of the rumour and the audience (internal/external). There are indeed, many factors involved!

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