the context of debunking that mistruth – increases its power. For instance, I find that mentioning the possibility of “death panels” increased the uncertainty in subjects’ belief in the existence of such panels even if the rumor was immediately discredited. These beliefs, in turn, decreased support for health reform. Thus, the attempt to correct a mistruth may only lead to a widespread confusion regarding its factual accuracy. Some strategies may, however, prove effective. Countering a rumor with statements from an unlikely source can, under the right circumstances, increase the willingness of all citizens to reject rumors regardless of their own political predilections. Specifically, I find that contrasting the death panel rumor with a counterargument from a Republican politician increased rates of rumor rejection for both Democrats and Republicans.
Rumors in the Political Realm
The term “rumor,” as Fine and Ellis (2010) note, is a one that has been used in a variety of ways in popular discourse. Indeed the “conceptual murkiness” surrounding the term – and its relationship to other forms of informal communication, such as gossip and urban legend – are longstanding concerns among social scientists (DiFonzo and Bordia 2007). Among scholars, however, a rough consensus regarding the meaning of “rumor” has emerged. Fine and Ellis argue that for social scientists, “rumor is an expression of belief about a specific event that is supposed to have happened or is about to happen. This claim may pique our interest, but lacks what the larger political system considers secure standards of evidence” (2010, 4). Similarly, Sunstein takes the term to refer to “claims of fact – about people, groups, events, and institutions – that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another and hence have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them” (2009, 6). Finally, DiFanzo and Bordia define the content of rumors as “Instrumentally relevant information statements that are unverified” (2007, 14).