February 11, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Coronavirus: Risk, rumour and resilience 

I was just starting to write this post, when I saw a tweet from Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, quoting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, who said, as widely reportedThis is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.” I agree. But I also think things are, as usual, a bit less black and white. 

Epidemics and rumour 

The spread of the novel 2019-nCOV Coronavirus (causing a disease now called COVID-19) is the latest in a series of recent epidemics and pandemics that have attracted the attention of sociologist and communication analysts. My own interest was triggered by the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in the UK

FMD is a highly infectious, acute viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animalsThe disruption and distress the disease caused at the time is hard to capture in academic prose or statistics. The countryside was effectively closed, and farmers and their families were confined to their farms for weeks on end; a movement ban on animals, the mass slaughter of animals and loss from the tourist trade severely disrupted many livelihoods.

Unlike the novel coronavirus, FMD poses no risks to human health, but the draconian measures adopted to deal with FMD did affect humans in many ways (some reflections on the impact of the outbreak can be found in this book, which includes a chapter on rumour).

This epidemic heightened my awareness for the interplay between science, politics and language, and so I tuned in again and again when other outbreaks occurred, such as SARS, avian flu, swine flu and Zika, for example. 

One aspect of the interplay between science, politics and language during the FMD was rumour, and rumour is again under the spotlight during the current outbreak of the coronavirus, a zoonotic disease that, like SARS, spread outwards from China across the world and does affect humans directly in many ways. 

Opening up and closing down 

The current outbreak has characteristics that are very similar but also very different compared to others. In all cases, control and containment are paramount aims. Over the years, it has become clear that these aims can only be achieved through fast, open and transparent science and honest and evidence-based risk communication.  

At the moment, global and open science is at the forefront of disease management efforts and the scientific world is rightly proud of how it reacted to this crisis – information sharing, and global collaboration have become the norm. This contrasts with some older outbreaks, such as BSE (mad cow disease) and FMD.  

Risk communication is a more difficult issue. Here politics has had a much more detrimental effect and has allowed rumours to flourish. But more importantly and rather perversely, in one famous case, in China, factual communication has been framed as rumour in order to suppress it, thus hampering initial containment efforts and undermining trust in the the risk communication system. In the UK, some risk communication by experts has been alarmist and ‘dramatic’, thus, not mitigating but fuelling the circulation of rumours.  

Opening up science is not enough if communication channels are locked down or polluted by messages that spread fear. As for locking down…

I remember reading this quote at the time of FMD“The farming community has retreated into itself behind walls of disinfected straw. Rumours abound, and gossip has it that most livestock between Penrith and Langholm might be wiped out. It is not a question of if one gets the disease; it is a matter of when.” (Lord Inglewood, 13 March 2001)  

In the case of the coronavirus the state locked down mega-cities across China and in fact almost the whole of China. Alongside this lock-down as a strategy to contain the virus, the state has also gradually locked down communication channels in order to ostensibly ‘contain’ what is regarded as the virus of misinformation. But rumour is not quite the same as misinformation, fake information, false information or disinformation, although there can be overlaps. 

The meanings of rumour 

During the FMD outbreak, we found that rumour was used to obscure ‘the truth’, but sometimes it was also the only source of ‘truth’ available – as other information was not forthcoming fast enough or was confusing, ambiguous or contradictory. Rumour and the management of rumour became an important part of the experience of FMD in 2001. It acted as an alternative and complement to official information and official risk assessment and risk management. It filled gaps in official ‘risk communication’ activities.  

An entirely negative meaning of rumour should therefore be balanced by looking at rumour from a different perspective, not as a social disease, but as a an individual and collective sense-making tool.   

Rumour is often described in terms of an unofficial but interesting story or piece of news that quickly spreads from person to person inside a social group. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “General talk, report, or hearsay, not based upon definite knowledge” and “A statement or report circulating in a community, of the truth of which there is no clear evidence” (OED, 1989; see also wikipedia.com). Synonyms or quasi-synonyms of rumour are grapevine, gossip, conspiracy theories, Chinese whispers, bush telegraph, anecdote, talk, speculation, myth, mystery, misinformation, untruth, lies, innuendo, propaganda; amongst the antonyms are knowledge, information, facts, truth, and evidence.  

Countering misinformation, lies and conspiracy theories, which can spread like wildfire on social media (much more important now than in 2001), is important, but ‘stamping out’ all hearsay and gossip or the ‘bush telegraph’ might be less beneficial, especially in times when people are locked up and have endless time on their hands. They need to fill their enforced isolation, as well as the silence and emptiness outside that can be frightening. Sharing and sifting through information is one way to do this. 

Social functions of rumour 

There is a long tradition of studying rumour in sociology and psychology and I can only highlight a few aspects of this literature which is still being used today to study information sharing in times of Twitter for example. It would be great to see this literature applied to the study of rumour during the outbreak of this coronavirus. 

Social psychologists have studied rumour for more than 70 years and found that people seek to give cognitive meaning to a situation through rumour activity (Allport and Postman, 1947, for example). Rumours are used to try to make sense of situations individually and collectively.  

It has also been suggested that higher levels of personal anxiety affect rumour activity as does the importance of the rumour and its type (i.e. dread rumours will have a different effect than wish rumours).  

As early as 1935 Prasad argued that the ‘group interest’ was one of the five conditions for the generation and transmission of rumours (Prasad: 1935: 5). Walker and Blaine in an experiment within a US college community again stressed the social aspects of rumour: “…passing dread rumours may satisfy the needs of individuals in a community to exercise secondary control” and pointed to other studies to reinforce the social aspect – “individuals may establish the social support needed to cope with the stress that dread rumors arouse” (Walker and Blaine 1991: 296).  

It has also been contended that rumours arise not because an original story gets distorted as it passes from person to person, but because people combine their individual explanations to form an overall story (Berger and Chaffee, 1987).

The American sociologist Shibutani defined rumour as “improvised news” – “a recurrent form of communication through which men [sic] caught together in an ambiguous situation attempt to construct a meaningful interpretation of it by pooling their intellectual resources” (1966: 17). For Shibutani rumours are collective symbolic transactions that take place in situations of collective ignorance and ambiguity about an event. Rumour thus provides individuals and communities with a way of giving meaning to ambiguous and uncertain situations.

As Piff (1998) has pointed out: Rumour, as a communal, conversational project undertaken for the purpose of making sense of the world, offers insights into some of the processes involved in the social construction of knowledge. Study of such discourse – the informal texts and talk produced and circulated within social groups – can yield insights into the particular features of the reality or world view being constructed, on the communal usefulness of this discourse, as well as how it is presented, modified, reflected and dispersed in the group and over time.(Piff, 1998 

Informal social networks, rather than codified knowledge in the form of procedures, databases etc., are often the prime avenue through which people obtain knowledge to help them solve a problem and make sense of a situation (see Dingwall, 2001).   

Rumours can spread lies and misinformation. However, rumours do more than that. They can fulfil important social forms of communication and sense-making. Eradicating a virus and shutting down transmission routes is important, but one should not eradicate valuable aspects of social life in the process and shut down, whole-sale, important routes of information transmission. 


In a book entitled Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar (1998) argued that gossip evolved as a substitute for primate grooming, functioning to strengthen social bonds and increase the possibility of cooperation in groups too large for extended personal contact between all members. Given the social and indeed evolutionary significance of gossip, and, by extension rumour, more effort needs to be directed towards understanding the important social functions these forms of communication have and to support and manage them in order to strengthen social resilience in time of crisis 

Supporting and fostering the sharing of research data is important during an outbreak of an epidemic, but so is supporting and fostering the sharing of stories. Suppressing rumours is counterproductive here, while fostering people’s ability and willingness to share credible stories based on research data is notFor this to happen, trust is needed, trust that may be eroded when (unofficial) rumours are quashed, but trust that might be nurtured through sensible (official) risk communication 

When finishing this post, I found this address by the Prime Minister of Singapore, which a tweeter called rightly [c]alm, credible, factual, informative, helpful, substantial, reassuring and unpretentious”. This is worth listening to and worth sharing – a great example of good risk communication that might prevent dangerous rumours to flourish. 

Added 21 March a good post on myth, misinformation and learning from rumours

Image: Flickr

Posted in coronavirusLanguageriskTrustUncertainty