“Rumors are bothersome because they may turn out to be true.”

If you want to study something, a first step might be to go out and collect it. If I was looking for themes in 16th century poetry about food, I’d go out and get 16th century poems about food. If I wanted to look at personal narratives of medical tragedy, I’d either solicit such information or pull examples from existing corpora.

When you get to misinformation, however, this doesn’t quite work. There is a fabulous line in Kapferer’s book on rumor, where he notes many early scholars in the field chose to use as examples untrue rumors; in practice they’re studying misinformation. But as Kapferer pointed out, this avoids the main social problem of rumor. Rumors, Kapferer pointed out, are not a social problem because they are false. Were that the case, people would long ago have ceased to traffic in them. Instead, he points out, “rumors are bothersome because they may turn out to be true.”

Starting from a point where something is already deemed misinformation hides that tension. It’s certainly useful to collect things that continue to circulate on the internet long after they are shown to be in error and ask why they persist. But misinformation often starts out as something more ambiguous, and that initial ambiguity is a crucial part of the story. And so when I think about misinformation around elections and what to look at, I lean less towards “misinformation” as the object of study, and more toward Kapferer’s definition of rumor:

We shall thus label “rumor” the emergence and circulation in society of information that is either not yet publicly confirmed by official sources or denied by them. “Hearsay” is what goes “unsaid,” either because rumors get the jump on official sources (rumors of resignations and devaluations) or because the latter disagree with the former (e.g., the rumor about the “true” culprits in the assassination of John F. Kennedy).

(Rumors, p 13)

Kapferer’s definition gets at the heart of a structural issue for me. What he calls “hearsay” thrives in two separate but related environments. The first is the area which Shibutani’s Improvised News explicated so brilliantly. When official channels fail to provide necessary information, hearsay provides an alternative network to fill in the gaps. This is a collective sense-making. The second is related, but separate: when there is a dispute about “who gets to speak” to an issue, hearsay thrives as an alternative to official channels. In other words, an adversarial sense-making.

Both of these functions are necessary to information environments, which is one reason why “hearsay” exists. But narrow the focus to misinformation, and we can become quickly reductive. Of course if things are wrong and harmful we want to minimize their spread. Such a world doesn’t need to reckon with trade-offs. When we broaden the frame from misinformation to hearsay, the key problem becomes visible. We need hearsay, both to fill informational gaps and to challenge official accounts.

Helping Hearsay

Much of the story of misinformation has been told by institutions who value the official account. In these tellings, misinformation has chipped away at institutional influence, with disastrous results. For them, misinformation is a corrosive force which undermines the utility of the official information system. In this case hearsay, whether they want to admit it or not, is treated as a disease within the body institutional.

There’s truth in this, but I’d propose a return to an underutilized frame, one that has historically informed a number of the fields that have been brought under the misinformation umbrella, from rumor studies to crisis informatics. Instead of seeing versions of hearsay (non-institutional systems of news and analysis) as primarily damaging institutional systems, we could choose to see the hearsay system itself as the thing under attack. That is, in the age of social media, a valuable system of non-institutional knowledge is increasingly gameable and gamed, rendered useless by a variety of threats and incentives that are polluting not the institutional space, but the hearsay space.

No single vision is ever adequate. But leaning at least a bit more into this question — how do we repair and restore the value of informal knowledge networks by protecting them from corruption — might get us to better, and more humane solutions. And it might help dial down what is often an unhelpful posture to both collective and adversarial sense-making, by centering the “bothersome” usefulness and centrality of these systems.

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  1. Pingback: Frank blogged on January 18, 2022 at 11:35AM | Notes From The Cave

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