An epidemic of rumors, or rumors of an epidemic: The making of a rumor

Last class we talked in depth about the paragraph at the end of Chapter 13:

Such was the tale, distorted and diversified a thousand ways by the credulity and exaggeration of the tellers. At first I listened to the story with indifference or mirth. Methought it was confuted by its own extravagance. The enormity and variety of such an evil made it unworthy to be believed. I expected that every new day would detect the absurdity and fallacy of such representations. Every new day, however, added to the number of witnesses and the consistency of the tale, till, at length, it was not possible to withhold my faith.

In this passage, Arthur ponders the nature of rumors, which blur the line between the appearance and reality in the book. Both Defoe and Brown present rumors as a mean of spreading information about the respective epidemics. The amount of rumors skyrockets at a time of plague as illustrated in both Arthur Mervyn and The Journal. However, rumors are present in society most of the time.

In 2002, a French author T. Meyssan published a hoax book with a false claim ‘No plane did crash on the Pentagon on September 11.’ Meyssan sold more than 100,000 copies. His claims became an urban legend that propagated through France, until a public denouncement of the book by many prominent newspapers. The paper “Modelling Rumors: The No Plane Pentagon French Hoax Case” tries to answer the question of how did these rumors spread. Although the paper’s case study is not about contagion, its framework can help us understand why and how rumors spread in the context of epidemics as well.

The paper proposes two conditions necessary for a rumor to propagate: a group of people of a size beyond a certain threshold must initiate a rumor, and the rumor must be consistent with a wider collective paradigm. In in the case of an epidemic, some areas may be hit more severely than others by the disease. I find it easy to imagine that people from such areas, with a dramatic experience not necessarily consistent with the wider effects of the epidemic, may spread an exaggerated tale of the plague.

Rumors of epidemics satisfy the second condition as well. Due to public information and private experience, people at a time of an epidemic have some information about a spread of the contagion. The awareness and acceptance of the existence of the disease is the social paradigm that provides a fertile ground for rumors. As we see in Brown’s book, although people in the countryside have some awareness of the presence of yellow fever, the information is incomplete. In this context, gruesome stories provide “a tincture of pleasing,” and become accepted by many.

Now, we can start to see how rumors propagate. The question remaining is: How can we gauge their veracity? Are rumors a valuable source of information when the official channels of communication break down during a crisis? Or do they inevitably breed panic and slow down the official response?

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