Episode 6: Rumor Has It
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What's up everyone? Welcome back to Indirect Message, a podcast about the cultural impact of the internet. I'm Laci Green. I wanted to apologize for my lateness on this episode. It's been an unusually busy few weeks here in East LA. I just got back from THRIVE in Salt Lake City, which is a conference put on by the Mormon Stories podcast. It was an amazing time. Wonderful people. I was a guest on their podcast as well as No Chaser with Timothy Delaghetto. Check them out if you're interested in and show them some love. I really enjoyed my visits with them! Alright, let's dive in.
Chapter 1: The Rumor Mill
Do you guys remember playing telephone as a kid? [Kids play telephone] Everyone sits in a circle and a message is whispered from kid to kid until it makes its way all the way around. Then the last kid in the circle stands up and announces what they heard. [Telephone clip] To everyone's amazement...it's usually pretty different than the original message. While kids may not pick up on the life lesson on display here, telephone is a great metaphor for gossip, a gentle warning about how information passed from person to person can be distorted to such an extent that it no longer resembles the truth. But despite myriad warnings from our parents and Mean Girls, gossip is here to stay. We all do it and we've all been the victims of it to varying degrees.
Gossip is a mechanism to pass social information. It's also worth noting that gossip is a separate though related phenomenon to rumors. Gossip might be true, although unethical to share. But rumors are by definition unverified -- they're theories, attempts to make sense of a situation or a person that confuses us. Like most YouTubers, I have had to deal with rumors online. People have posted a colorful variety of claims about me. A tweet hinting at big news was rumored to be a pregnancy announcement. When I started a new hosting gig, there were rumors that I was making millions of dollars at MTV. Alongside an avalanche of conspiracies and rumors about my politics. In a world where clicks translate into cash, it should come as no surprise that blogs and YouTube channels peddling rumors have formed their own cottage industry online. Whether they realize it or not, they're participating in an industry that dates back to 1709 when the first gossip magazine, The Tatler, opened shop in London.
By the 1900s gossip magazines had made their way to America. The first national gossip rag, called Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip, began publishing hearsay about actors, politicians, and the New York elite in 1916. Today, over a hundred years later, there are over 400 gossip magazines in circulation. But adding social media into the gossip industry has changed it in at least one powerful way; by adding your Average Joe to the list of acceptable targets. Gossip about people that are largely unknown to the public is a key feature of the internet rumor mill, but regular people typically don't enjoy the trappings of wealth, status and power to protect them. In turn, the stakes of rumor are higher than ever...even when the people spreading them don't mean to be cruel.
Chapter 2: #SaveMarinaJoyce
Marina Joyce is a 22 year old YouTuber from the UK. She makes blogs about her life, fashion hauls, makeup tutorials, standard YouTube fare.
[Marina Teenage Girls Video]
She also happens to have endured a seemingly endless avalanche of rumors. It started in 2016 when fans noticed some bizarre body language in her videos.
[Marina: Hey guys, so today I'm advertising sell you an advertising their clothes, so this is me just advertising their clothes.]
She would frequently gaze off camera and appeared unusually rigid and fans started to worry that something was wrong. After posting a makeup tutorial where a rifle can be seen leaning against the wall behind her, the concern took on a frenzied fervor. Rumors flew that Marina was in an abusive situation and was perhaps being held hostage. Then Marina posted a now infamous video where she's trying on dresses, but you can see bruises on the back of her arms. Going full scale internet detective, people started scouring her back catalog for any sign or hint of what might be going on. A list was made and passed around online of everything worrying that they had found.
"I have the feeling along with many other people that someone is forcing Marina to make these videos. Most likely her boyfriend, but it's possible she could have been kidnapped. Her eyes keep trailing off behind camera, almost like she's repeating what someone else is doing."
Among the list's many items was the sounds of chains rattling when she jumped, a tweet saying "hope everyone pancakes" was rumored to be an acronym to spell "help". And in one video, the list claims she faintly whispers "help me under her breath". Hundreds if not thousands of videos on YouTube analyzed and discussed the rumors.
"Oh, this is the thing that I think everyone is the most concerned about. There's like little bruises on the back of your arm. At least that's what a lot of people think they are and a lot of people want to know what the, what's going on with that. You know what I mean? I tripped over in a forest because I like to go for walks when I had quite a thought too, so it was really upsetting for that to happen. But yeah, I just tripped in the forest."
On July 26 things reached a boiling point. Hashtag Save Marina Joyce trended worldwide on Twitter for 24 hours as users speculated about what could be going on and how to save her. Marina didn't address the hashtag, but she did tweet,
Meet me at Bethnal green at 6:30 AM if would like to join partying with me at that event. Bring your friend so you don't get lost.
Another cryptic message in a bizarre chain of posts. A rumor ignited on Twitter that the meetup was a terrorist plot, a trap set by ISIS. Warnings flew across social media not to go. That same night, fans around the UK flooded the police with phone calls, prompting them to check on her in the middle of the night. At 4:00 AM both the local police and Marina tweeted that she was safe, perfectly fine, sleeping at home. Things died down for a while, but it wasn't long before Marina made another strange post. This time on Facebook. She claimed that she had found out secrets about the afterlife and that she wanted to create a shrine in Peru. From here, people speculated that Marina might be on drugs, an addict even. This narrative caught on and it became an enduring rumor that still persists today.
"For two years, people have been trying to solve the mystery behind Marina Joyce and I'm proud to announce that I have solved it. Marina Joyce was acting strange because she was under the influence of drugs."
As all this was happening, Marina stayed mostly quiet about the rumors whirling around her. Then almost a year later, she broke her silence.
"Hey guys, so today I'm going to be addressing saving Marina Joyce. I simply don't want you to believe any of the conspiracy theories because none of them are true and I can promise you that it's always best to believe the truth directly from the person. The reason why I did not give you an answer before was because I was not in the right mindset to give you one. I did suffer from depression. It was so bad. It hurts me to this day to think of all the reckless things I did that showed that I did not care about my life. Things that I would look back upon and through so grateful to the state that I'm still alive."
Eventually the eye of the storm passed and things seemed to go back to normal for Marina. Until this past July, when an anonymous person filed a missing persons report claiming that Marina hadn't been seen for nine days. She trended on Twitter again. The police visited her house again and she was found safe again. Marina tweeted that she had never actually gone missing. She defended her boyfriend against the rumors that he was abusing her. What actually happened to Marina? Nobody really knows, but if what she keeps saying over and over is true --that she's struggling with severe mental illness-- her story should give us pause. Those who are dealing with mental health issues are especially vulnerable to the damage that can be inflicted by rumors online. There are many perfectly well and healthy people who lack the wherewithal to tame an internet storm. For those who are unwell, these situations are quietly dire, assuming she's telling the truth. A young person's struggling with mental illness is now having to deal with millions of people who keep insisting that she was kidnapped a hostage, a terrorist, an abuse victim, a drug addict. The idea that she might be telling the truth has been strangely absent from the rumor mill.
Chapter 3: The Info Warp
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Here to talk to me about rumors today is Dr. Taylor Carlson. She's a professor at Washington University in St Louis. Her work explores how information gets warped as it flows through our social networks. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
I got interested in this topic in part because um, there are a lot of really salient rumors that had been communicated prominently from news sources. It thought about, you know, some experiences in my own life and experiences, um, that I know my friends and family members have had where you read an article or you watch something on the news, then you want to tell someone else about it. But when you do that, the information somehow gets changed. This sort of idea of how information flows from the media to our conversations. Sometimes that information changes because we simply forget the details sometimes. It also changes just because of the way that we process information. We tend to process information in a way that largely confirms what we already believe to be true. You know, if a Democrat and Republican watch the same news story and are consuming the same information, are likely to interpret that in very different ways. The other piece of that is that, you know, you could also imagine a world in which people are intentionally distorting information, right? So whether it's because they are trying to persuade someone. I like to think of a lot of this as happening sort of outside of our awareness necessarily, and that we're not sort of deliberately trying to miss it or people, but that could be happening.
Rumors are a type of misinformation. Right? So do you think there is some crossover between what you're looking at and kind of how interpersonal rumors either online or in person get a little out of hand sometimes?
Oh, absolutely. So there's a long, um, really fascinating literature. You know, the psychology of rumors. A lot of the work in political science is trying to apply a lot of those theories in that groundwork that has been laid.
Can you tell me a little bit about that? You know, what's going on here? Why are we doing this?
Right! So rumors spread under a variety of conditions or situations. So, um, one like we talked about is when there's some kind of uncertainty or ambiguity. When a student is suddenly absent from class, everyone is going to start trying to figure out why that student isn't in class. Is the student sick? Is the student, um, you know, in trouble, right? You're going to, you start to see these rumors develop about why the student is suddenly not in class anymore. Rumors also spread when people feel anxious. You know that people who are more anxious or more likely to spread rumors, particularly you could imagine in a situation of crisis, right? Or when we're under threat, all of these kinds of emotions swirling around, we're just, and we're just looking for answers to try to calm us. We're also more likely to be drawn to negative information than positive information. And more negative rumors tend to spread more, spread more quickly than positive ones.
So the rumor can always almost be like a form of relief. Maybe it's like to try to self soothe and try to find something that makes sense in, in a lot of chaos.
Exactly. Yup. We're trying to make sense of these complicated, confusing, scary, uncertain situations and so if there's a rumor that makes us feel better, it might be appealing to believe that rumor.
Let's talk about the negative rumors spreading more than positive rumors. That's kind of interesting is do you think there might be a similar mechanism going on there where the negative rumors feel better or...?
It could be a lot of things driving this pattern of a negative rumors or "dreadful rumors" as they're sometimes called. We tend to be drawn to negative information in general, so we see this in negative campaign ads, for example. We're more drawn to the negative information contained in news articles. Some researchers might link this back to sort of an evolutionary explanation where I'm tending to negative or threatening information was advantageous if we have the time. Sure we can pay attention to the positive, happy, nonthreatening stimuli in our environment, but if there's something negative or threatening that needs our immediate attention, I can't speak to that based on, uh, my work. But what I can say from my work is that I do find, I find that the social transmission of information tends to make information more negative. So if we start with a news article and sort of try to analyze how positive or negative the text of that article is, and then we ask someone to summarize that article and then someone else to summarize that person's summary. If we analyze the sentiment at each stage of that process, it tends to become more and more negative.
That's really interesting. So as far as, you know, some of the ways that information is warped and why on verified claims are spread, do you have any other thoughts on what might be going on there?
There's another, um, element that we haven't talked about yet and we tend to, um, spread rumors when it helps, when we think it's going to help ourselves image and, or help our social status in some way. It might come in the form of trying to signal to others that you're in the know and you can imagine this having big implications for politics to where if some rumor is released and you become aware of it and you want to seem like you're the knowledgeable one among your peers. Similarly, you may think that spreading a rumor could elevate your social status in some way by sort of strengthening social ties. This can often come when we're trying to gain acceptance by a group and we're sharing information that makes our group or the group you're trying to become a part of look good and maybe even disparages a rival group.
How does social media come into all of this? You know, what role is this high-speed instant media environment playing in the spread of rumor and misinformation? Yeah, that's a great, yeah.
Yeah. My sense is that that social media has essentially just allowed for an amplification of all of these mechanisms, right? So where now information can spread so much faster to so many more people as opposed to, you know, rumors that spread within a high school or within a town. The growth of the internet I think has just really amplified the scale.
What about information that's a little more nuance that comes out and corrects our mistaken beliefs or corrects a rumor that has disseminated when we receive more accurate information? It doesn't seem like people update their perspectives. Is that true?
There's a lot of mixed evidence on whether we update our beliefs in response to corrective information. The more we hear a rumor, the more we hear a myth, a piece of misinformation, a conspiracy theory, whatever it may be. There's something to be said for it becoming more and more likely that we are to believe it's true. And one of the big implications of this that phenologist have looked at is that it's really hard then to present people with the true information if you pair it with the false information at the same time. So for example, if you see posters of like fact and fiction about, uh, vaccines or about, you know, getting the flu shot or some political issue or something like that, listing out all of these things that they believe have been shown to be false. And then the corrections. By doing that, you're also exposing people to the false information. Again, making it more readily available in their minds in some studies, um, that you know, when asked right away, people can report the accurate information, but when asked in followup studies, they're more likely to recall the false information that they've heard again and again. So we think that, you know, facts checking could be a great way to try to correct information that's out there, but we have to be really careful in doing so because by exposing people to the correction, you're also re exposing them to the false content. And so it's this really delicate balancing act.
That seems like it would lend itself to one of the solutions, maybe a controversial solution that's put out there, which is for social media companies to remove misinformation outright from their platforms. Of course, I don't want misinformation to spread online, but do I want Facebook to be the arbiter of what's true and what's not? I don't know about that.
That's one of the big challenges. It's hard to tell like who should be the authority on what's true. There's a really interesting paper by Chloe Lim. She basically looks to see how often fact-checking websites agree. They come to the same conclusions. Things that were shown to be totally true are totally false. There's pretty high agreement, but anything kind of in the middle that's a little bit murkier. The levels of agreement between fact checking websites are lower than I think we might be comfortable with. To your point that you know, who gets to be in charge of what's true. You know, we all point to the platforms and we say, Hey platforms, fix it because this is happening on your platform and it's your fault. But at the same time, their solutions have to account for these, uh, challenges that we face with our own psychological and cognitive biases.
Totally. Yeah. Um, do you have any thoughts on how uncorrected mistaken beliefs in an interpersonal context, people in a town, at a school, whatever it might be, you know, where people kind of go with the most simple explanations, the most comfortable explanations,
I would imagine, um, that a lot of the same mechanisms apply. One of the things that one of my collaborators, Jamie Settle and I have been thinking a lot about is how we can leverage these social or reputational costs. And so does the person who brings a rumor to your attention or spreads a rumor to your social network, whether that's online or you know, in your friend group, does that person face any sort of social or reputational costs to the group? And you could imagine that over time if someone sort of becomes known as being the town gossip, that that might not be a good thing. And maybe people start to trust information from that person less. But even more so we, we've been thinking about ways in which, you know, we can sort of try to call each other out essentially for spreading these rumors.
It's tricky because it's unclear what the best way of doing that is. We imagine that you want to be aggressive about it because that could make someone really dig their heels in and we don't want to sort of damage the social relationships. But at the same time, if we can use the importance of our social relationships and sort of build on this idea of trying to improve our social status, but sort of flip it on its head to try to be spreading good information instead of rumors, maybe that could be a path forward that allows us to combat misinformation without needing to provide the corrective information or without needing to deal with some of these other issues.
So kind of changing the social incentives.
If the correction is coming from, from a friend, does that have a stronger influence?
Yeah, that's interesting. I mean, you're up against a lot, right? You get ego insecurity, exile it, these things at play. So in a similar vein, I guess, how, how can each of us try to be more positive actors in, in this space when we're faced with rumors, gossip on verified information of all colors, obviously, you know, we want to try to fact check and not spread information that we don't know is true. So that's, that's a big one. But that can be very time consuming when we are in these super saturated information environments and just taking in so much constantly.
Uh, that's the million dollar question right now isn't it? Americans are just worn out and fatigued by the amount of information that's out there in the is sort of the springboard for a lot of my work is you know a lot of people because of this are opting for other information sources. They're looking for shortcuts. So as we're looking for these shortcuts, I guess one thing that I think that could be helpful is to sort of really think carefully about the, the source of the shortcuts. If you are going to rely on friends for information, for example. I'm really trying to think about the biases that your friends might have and how that might affect the information that they're sharing with you. I think it will be important too, develop skills to evaluate information, but I think in general, just being able to detect when something sounds fishy and then being able to have the motivation look up some additional information if it's something that you care about. I don't know how we motivate people to do that, but I think that's something that could be important moving forward.
On the next episode of Indirect Message, we discuss an utterly bizarre but increasingly common type of relationship, the relationship between internet celebrities and their fans. I'll be joined by one of YouTube, most beloved comedians who's also a dear friend of mine. You won't want to miss this one. Have a great week everyone. I'll be back on December 4th!