News Lit Tips

Rumor has it and rumor has it again and again

News Lit Tip: Watch Out! Old viral rumors recirculate when the people or issues they're about are back in the news.

Like the bad germs they are, viral rumors come to life, then die down, then flare anew when the people or issues they’re about are back in the news.

To understand how and why, consider what a virus is, and also what makes for a rumor.

“Viral,” of course, is based on “virus,” a highly contagious microscopic parasite.

Now consider the psychology of rumors. Research shows that several factors play into their dissemination: When there is uncertainty. When we feel anxiety. When the information is relevant to something important.

Combine the viral aspect (a germ that spreads quickly) and the psychology aspect (a nugget of information that fascinates) with the internet, and you have a recipe for a super-virus.

One example is a false and oft-repeated rumor about actor Denzel Washington. Contrary to social posts shared widely, Washington did not publicly back then-candidate Donald Trump for president in the 2016 election. The origins of the rumor are murky (a site later found to be headquartered in India was among the first to post the made-up information), but the repeat flare-ups of the meme include clues to its mutations: After 2016, it popped up again in February 2018, when Washington was in the headlines for his Oscar nomination. Then months later, when musician Kanye West — another prominent African American — spoke in support of Trump, the Washington-Trump rumor-meme spread around the internet yet again.

Another example of how viral rumors come back and back: A caption and widely shared photo of a couple (with the woman in blackface) erroneously identified the couple as Bill and Hillary Clinton. The meme circulated in 2016 during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, then popped up again in February 2019 amid controversies involving blackface and a number of politicians, including Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, Florida state legislator Anthony Sabatini, and two elected officials in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring.

Controversial topics don’t go away; neither do viral rumors about them. They might lie dormant for months, only to re-emerge — and perhaps spread even more widely than before — when a germ of the controversy again is in the news.