What’s fascinating is how and why a rumor spreads, even if the content of the rumor is unremarkable or ridiculous.
One of my courses this semester uses a textbook with a section of readings by people who have researched and studied rumors and conspiracy theories.
Two brief excerpts:
“Rumors frequently spread through informational cascades. The basic dynamic behind such cascades is simple: once a certain number of people appear to believe a rumor, others will believe it too, unless they have good reason to believe that it is false. Most rumors involve topics on which people lack direct or personal knowledge, and so most of us defer to the crowd. As more people defer, thus making the crowd grow, there is a real risk that large groups of people will believe rumors even though they are entirely false.” — Cass R. Sunstein, in On Rumors
(Note: In the above sense, rumors have an impact similar to “social proof.”)
The need to believe
“Rumors and conspiracy theories can only thrive in the minds of people who are predisposed to believe them. Successful propagators of fringe theories don’t just send random balloons into the atmosphere. Rather, they tap into the preexisting beliefs and biases of their target audiences.” — Gregory Rodriguez, in the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 28, 2009