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Rumour—A believable lie

Huzaima Bukhari

“Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it
”—William Shakespeare-Henry IV, Part 2

Socrates (469-399 BC), a famous Greek philosopher known for his wisdom met an excited acquaintance, keen on telling him something:

“Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”

“Triple filter?”
“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student, let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No, “actually I just heard about it and…”

“All right.” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you’re not certain if it’s true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued. “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter—the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”          
“No, not really”          
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True or Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”  

According to Dr. Bernard Hart, human beings are fond of taking the centre stage, whether it is in their family, work place, show business or even on the streets. In a research paper “The Psychology of Rumour” published in 1916, the eminent scholar has elaborated upon this particular aspect of human nature. In everyday life one can easily observe the eagerness with which many come forward to see how much control they can exercise in certain situations. There is this inert sense of self-importance that emerges during various episodes and the desire to do something that would leave everyone in awe. To be the first to know, to tell, to see, to hear are some of the items from the underlying wish-list that craves to get other people’s attention.

Spreading information (true or false) is one of humans’ favourite past times that probably springs from indulgence in gossip, particularly regarding other people. Thus for example, if Mr. X is found frequently visiting a home where by chance there are a couple of unmarried women living and he is espied by a friend or foe, within no time, the news that X is involved in a secret extramarital affair, is sure to become the talk of the town. This is done without confirming facts and without even confronting the person whose reputation and perhaps marriage are at stake because of a rumour. A little probe could have revealed that he was helping an old invalid widow with her business accounts and had nothing to do with her daughters who were independently earning their own livelihood.

Dr. Hart goes further to discuss the elements of herd instinct where the individual seeks to identify with the herd and help in spreading the rumour. The way certain information is convincingly portrayed by the speaker and the excited gullibility with which the audience absorbs it, depicts the vulnerability to which we are naturally inclined. This can only be checked with conscious application of one’s rational mind as aptly presented by Socrates. This goes to prove that mere hearsay should not be sufficient to trigger off a chain of whispers and even where some news is found to be true, its dissemination should take place after evaluating all the pros and cons of consequences. Blindly accepting something about someone as true, shows lack of knowledge about that someone’s nature.

Similarly, on a global scale, conspiracy theories (especially at the government level), are hatched and propagated mostly to disguise incompetence related to governance. Where failure is evident, the immediate response is to shift the blame somewhere else. Conspiracy theories and rumours are closely linked with the latter being likened to a vehicle of the former as propounded by David Coady, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tasmania. He denounces both conspiracy theories and rumours as bad. In a separate article, he does mention that while rumours are reliable as far as becoming a mechanism for transmission of justified beliefs, conspiracy theories are prima facie unreliable.

In the aftermath of World War II, a growing interest was shown in the psychology of rumour. Ground-breaking work was done by W. Allport and Leo Postman in 1947 whose prime concern related to damage to morale and national safety caused by ominous information creating alarm and raising high hopes. They asserted that pursuant to “the basic law of rumour”, rumour strength would vary with the importance of the subject to the individual concerned. This is why some rumours spread like wildfire whereas others fizzle out soon after. Following in their footsteps, many scholars in the subsequent decades added their input to this field trying to grapple with different characteristics of rumour. 

In the last few months, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has experienced many waves of both rumours and conspiracy theories. Its reasons, effects and even treatments have been making multiple rounds in both social and electronic media. Suddenly everyone seemed to have become the harbinger of vital information, religious pundit with remedies from the holy books, scientists demoralizing the public about permanency of virus in the bodies and healers claiming to have discovered unquestionable treatments. What are all these, other than rumour-mongering? One actually needs to be highly careful with reading, hearing and believing just anything that comes before us. Raindrops are all alike but change their form when falling on various surfaces. Similarly, people respond differently—from getting heart attacks to sneering—to what they are made to perceive.

At times, even dissemination of truth can be damaging or at least demoralizing, if done imprudently.

How beautifully Chris Jami, in Killosophy (platform for the amateur needing to create but lacking opportunity to present themselves): “A rumor is a social cancer: it is difficult to contain and it rots the brains of the masses. However, the real danger is that so many people find rumors enjoyable. That part causes the infection. It is passed on and on until some brave soul questions its validity; that brave soul refuses to bite the apple and let the apple eat him. Forced to start from scratch for the sake of purity and truth, that brave soul, figuratively speaking, fully amputates the information in order to protect his personal judgment. In other words, his ignorance is to be valued more than the lie believed to be true.”


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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