Halting the march of rumours -THE HINDU-15-04-2020


The anatomy of rumours:

Not all rumours are pernicious. For a start, a rumour is an untested piece of information, opinion, report or story. First, it must have a ring of truth. Laced with passion, it works by seizing the collective psyche of victims.

Fifth, even when deliberately planted by only a few, it derives authority largely from the mob. Indeed, expert-authority is helpless against its seductive power. So, a rumour is a useful half-truth with strong emotional overtones that spreads fast, gripping individual minds to create a common consciousness and agency, often with grave social consequences. Rumours are efficacious in societies already prepared to receive them.

First, a context where there is either an information void or an information overload. Unable to satisfactorily make sense of their world in these uncertain contexts, humans become cognitively unstable and anxious. To meet their cognitive needs, they are forced to rely on bits and pieces of available knowledge, on a patchwork of half-truths, a rag bag of allusions that together provide a fragile, uncorroborated framework for interpreting events. Rumours feed on this mythic framework.

Add emotional anxiety to this cognitive framework, and one has a ready-made arena for rumours to flourish. An overheated mind burns all evidence that comes its way and surrenders to rumours, often in the service of emotional needs. Recall how, during demonetisation, amidst despair and anxiety at losing their own money, the poor still found emotional satisfaction in the rumour that crores of rupees secretly stored in cash by the rich were rendered worthless.

Why they circulate:

Jamuna Prasad, a psychologist at Ranchi and Patna Universities, was among the first to establish a link between high levels of anxiety and the easy spread of rumours. Typically unrecognised when alive but posthumously celebrated as a pioneer in the social psychology of rumours, he did so by studying the social impact of the deadly Bihar-Nepal earthquake of 1934. Indeed, by binding people, creating temporary solidarities against a perceived enemy, they only deepen polarisation.

A rumour is that story. And the more horrifying, outrageous and disgusting the story, the greater its emotional resonance and quicker its spread. The truth, altogether different, is that they went there seeking refuge. Given this threat, panic-stricken Muslims in Indore unjustifiably beat up a team of doctors who had come to test them for COVID-19.

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