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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Rumor Communities

In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.

At Social Science Quarterly, Jill A. Edy andErin E. Risley-Baird have an article titled "Rumor Communities: The Social Dimensions of Internet Political Misperceptions."  The abstract:

This study illuminates the communicative and social qualities of naturally occurring public resistance to authoritative debunking of political misperceptions, rumors, and conspiracy theories. Developing the concept of a “rumor community,” it highlights aspects of rumoring processes overlooked by psychological approaches common in misperception research.

Over 2,000 user-generated comments from the “vaccines cause autism” rumor community, produced as the medical study that had sparked the rumor was retracted and ultimately denounced as fraudulent, are examined for their contribution to the public conversation about vaccine safety.

Rumor community members publicly counterargue debunking messages, which creates a communication environment offering argumentative resources to community members and reaffirming the community's solidarity. Members assert their credibility to gain authority to speak, countering science with personal experience. Highlighting their interconnection with more conventional social groups and venerable social truisms, members generate discourse that legitimates their beliefs.
The process of rumor debunking does not solely involve psychological persuasion but must also account for the social geography of rumor communities and their contributions to the communication environment.
From the article:
Little is known about how such source credibility claims impact audiences, but enticing anecdotal evidence suggests eyewitness authority may be distinctively powerful in online political communication. Research in another online political context revealed that factual evidence was contested, but personal experience was accepted as incontrovertible (van Zoonen et al., 2007). The rumor community’s personal experiences may thus be a uniquely powerful tool for resisting the scientific discourse in debunking messages.
The response of the vaccines-cause-autism rumor community to repeated debunking of its central raison d’etre reveals ongoing work to preserve ambiguity. Anecdotal evidence from other high-profile political misperceptions, such as the “birther” community, suggests this may be a typical response from a threatened rumor community. This  lluminates the function of some psychological counterarguing that may undermine attempts to debunk rumors. Yet, a second challenge for rumor debunking arises  pecifically from public expression of counterarguments. Public counterarguments may serve as a source of social support for the rumor community, reminding members that others share their beliefs and providing them with new resources for resisting debunking  essages. Recognizing that rumor believers not only hold beliefs individually but may also participate in communities that help them sustain their beliefs suggests the process of rumor debunking is not just one of psychological persuasion but must also take into account the social geography of rumor communities. Indeed, future research on political misperceptions should investigate whether members of a rumor community develop a group identity such that renouncing a misperception carries the risk of social sanctions from fellow group members. Future research should also explore interactions between community members in public spaces, for while public expressions of shared belief may be enough to sustain a community, building it is almost certainly an interactive process.
The ways rumor community members establish credibility to address the misperception also reveals a communication environment much changed from that of early studies of how public officials regained control of a rumor. The more diffuse political  ommunication environment made possible by the Internet (Stroud, 2008), and the decline in widely accepted social authority (Quandt, 2012), may mean social authorities may have less power to stymie rumors than earlier scholars ascribed to them (e.g., Larsen, 1954). Eyewitness authority grounded in personal experience may trump official or scientific explanations in Internet contexts, raising new challenges for those seeking to debunk misperceptions.
A rumor’s survival may depend not only on preserving ambiguity, contesting institutional authority, and providing social support to a community of believers. Misperceptions may also survive because they effectively express venerable truisms of political culture. Many of the vaccines-cause-autism rumor community’s comments express widely shared political stances and social values such as distrust of big business, government, and news media. They also express solidarity with respected social groups, parents, and the autism community. A modernist take on these types of appeals might classify them as conspiracy theories, amplifying the unlikely and elaborate connections between social actors implied in such theories. However, the essential appeal of many conspiracy theories is that they speak to deep-rooted beliefs about how the social world works. The more effectively they embrace those beliefs, the greater their likely staying power and the greater the risk they will not only survive but potentially spread to broader publics.
  • Larsen, O. N. 1954. “Rumors in a Disaster.” Journal of Communication 111–23
  • Quandt, T. 2012. “What’s Left of Trust in a Network Society? An Evolutionary Model and Critical Discussion of Trust and Societal Communication.” European Journal of Communication 27(1):7–21.
  • Stroud, N. J. 2008. “Media Use and Political Predispositions: Revisiting the Concept of Selective Exposure.” Political Behavior 30:341–66.
  • van Zoonen, L., F. Muller, D. Alinejad, M. Dekker, L. Duits, P. Vis, and W. Wittenberg. 2007. “Dr. Phil Meets the Candidates: How Family Life and Personal Experience Produce Political Discussions.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 24(4):322–38.