Sleeping with the Nanny: A Study in Rumourtology

Sleeping with the Nanny: A Study in Rumourtology

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

When my son was three, he very innocently let slip to his teachers, friends and their parents that ‘my Nanny sleeps in Daddy’s bed when Mummy is away’, sending the local parental rumour mill into overdrive.

Of course, our son forgot to mention Daddy was away with Mummy at the time – and I haven’t let him forget it since! But false rumours have more serious consequences, especially in the corporate or commercial world.

A rumourtologist can suppress inflammation of a false rumour, delay or halt the progression of any false rumour, or ease the pain generally for all those affected by a false rumour. Time is of the essence. According to a study at Warwick University, it takes two hours for a rumour to be resolved as true, normally by someone confirming it online. However, it takes more than 14 hours for a false rumour to be debunked.

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle,  a false rumour or #fakenews can travel a very  long way in 14 hours. Social media users are especially inclined to make extra effort to propel a rumour before any validity is resolved.  And false rumours can lie dormant and then pop up again when least expected and propel again, and again. How many times do we see the same fake news reappearing? Therein lies the danger of false rumours, and the human frailty and bias towards negativity.

So how do rumours spread, how do we establish their veracity, and how do we tackle them? Let’s look at these one by one.

Heard it through the grapevine

[caption id="attachment_13708" align="alignnone" width="559"] NB. Mentions are red, retweets and quotes are in blue[/caption]

How rumours spread has been analysed scientifically by institutions including Indiana University, which looked at 14 million messages on Twitter in 2016 during the US presidential election. Twitter bots, which accounted for 6% of the accounts analysed, spread 31% of the fake news – or ‘bad credibility items’ as the university rather diplomatically puts it. Similarly, bots act very quickly, taking a mere two to 10 seconds to latch onto news and spread it.

We all know how easily manipulated we can be by the sensational news on social networks or on media sites like the Daily Mail or the Express and this can fire up an almost explosive reaction that is hard to ignore. Online, it’s so easy to send a quick retort – so easy in fact, that any YouTube comment between three and eight words has a 72% chance of being abusive. “What a pile of (add expletives!).”

A lot of truth is said in jest

Thankfully, there are very clever scientists out there trying to help us understand this, to determine how and why false rumours spread faster and further than the truth. And what is true and what is false. These include:

  • Hoaxy, an automated system to analyse the spread of false rumours and debunking them. For our more technical readership, it’s an open platform, enabling large-scale systemic studies of how #fakenews and #factchecking compete on Twitter specifically. https://hoaxy.iuni.iu.edu/
  • Truthy, studies the spread of memes online and offline. It is now known as OSoMe, the Observatory on Social Media, and is a joint project between Indiana University Network Science Institute and the Centre for Complex Network and Systems Research.  http://truthy.indiana.edu/about/
  • Snopes, a long-time favourite hoax debunker, you can both search for common hoaxes and look at their current ‘greatest’ rumours online. https://www.snopes.com/50-hottest-urban-legends/

Rising up to the challenge of our rival

Tackling rumour and speculation is something that a lot of organisations do very badly – because it’s not easy. After all, if you say nothing or ‘no comment’ that is often taken as an admission of guilt. Similarly, commenting on an issue can also fan the flames – and for all those who say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’, talk to Tesla’s shareholders; when Elon Musk was sued by the SEC, the communications reverberations wiped $200m off its market cap.

And it’s our job as communicators to manage reputations and minimise the impact that rumours have on a company’s image. It’s a fine balance, and we will often differentiate between ‘issues management’ – minor, occasionally challenging issues that are unlikely to reach the outside world – and full blown ‘crisis management’. If you’re facing a rumour, here’s a short test to help you evaluate where it falls:

  1. Can we keep the rumour to a minimum if we take no action at all?
  2. Can it be contained internally?
  3. Will it affect reputation and profits?
  4. Is it out in the public domain already?
  5. Could it undermine the day-to-day performance or value of the company?

If the answer is “yes” to points one or two, it’s a rumour to be monitored carefully. If the answer is “yes” to three, four, or five – it’s time to react.

Once you’ve worked this out, how do you cope? Here are my eight principles for being a top rumourtologist so your communications plans don’t get disjointed.

  1. Keep a cool head. Don’t meet fire with fire: Step back. Reflect and cool off before you decide your strategy.
  2. Enlarge it, reduce it: Is this a small part of a bigger problem? Or a bigger take on a smaller issue? Regain the perspective you need to resolve the issue at hand and either handle the whole problem or isolate the problem. Try not to narrow your perspective.
  3. Don’t take it personally: It’s normal for people at the ‘receiving end’ of a crisis to be angry – and often, it can say more about their position than you – don’t let this affect you.
  4. Consider carefully how/if you should respond: Mind your tone, language, use of humour and self-deprecation etc. Don’t feed a troll – always rely on facts.
  5. Take your time: This is tough: Responding quickly is vital, but don’t leap to conclusions – issuing a statement in haste can mean you repent at leisure.
  6. Focus on positives: In a crisis situation, it’s easy to focus on all the negative aspects – remember to present the bigger picture from time to time.
  7. Strength in numbers: You’re never alone in a crisis situation, and sometimes support from a partner organisation or even another internal member of staff can significantly strengthen your position or response – not to mention the informal support: a problem shared is a problem halved!
  8. Compassion or forgiveness gives the permission to move on: Be kind and remember that eventually people will want to move on and progress with their lives. A moment of compassion can assist that significantly.

Fake rumours, especially those without a shred of reality or any truth behind them, are wearing at best and devastating at worst. It’s almost impossible to control how rumours start – but you can influence how they develop.

Similarly, you can also control how you choose to respond – you need to dig deep to find that inner or corporate resilience, but dignity, honesty and fairness will always win over lying, cheating and dishonesty.

In our communications roles, we’re all rumourtologists and we’ll continue to face issues over time. But we all need to hone our containment and handling skills … especially when they also transfer so handily to school scandals about any sexual shenanny-gans!

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