Rumour, Gossip, and Misinformation
Fourteenth century communication in the digital age.
Posted May 11, 2020
Social media is a new, 21st century, technology that allows fast, mass communication, increased connectivity and transmission of knowledge. Yet, in this new digital age, societies are facing an old problem—that of a pandemic—will the new technology help provide a new means of tackling this challenge? A look back into history to compare responses to pandemics then with now suggests otherwise. While the technology is new, its effects are not as different from old fashioned word-of-mouth as we might hope—they are just faster. In fact, digital communication in the 21st century may end up producing the same results as verbal communication in the 14th century—and our learning mechanisms may ensure that this will be the case.
It is, of course, very important not to make too many uncritical comparisons between then and now—in any context. There are differences between pandemics across time, including their infectiousness, mortality rates, and our ability to provide medical care. However, one thing does not change—the human reaction to the environment. Under similar circumstances, and with perceptions of those circumstances being made through similar emotional lenses (fear and anxiety), our reactions will be the same. The reliable impact of the environment has been documented with great clarity in Schedules of Reinforcement1, and the generality of these findings suggests that this is one of the few established facts of Psychology2. Even though we have greater knowledge of the causes of disease, at least in the abstract, pandemics produce two emotions that do not change—fear about the present, and anxiety about the future. These two emotions dictate much human reaction in such times, and differences between then and now should not be overplayed, especially when we look at the implications of the existence of digital communication.
The 14th century points to some pitfalls that we will do well to avoid in the current age, especially connected to the effects of mass digital communication. With this in mind, some historical context may be helpful to point to the similarities; around 1347, the Black Death arrived in South East Europe. It was spread by commercial travellers, quickly for the day, and, by early 1348, it was established in Italy and the Western Mediterranean. The plague then spread throughout Western Europe, and arrived in the UK during the summer of 1348. During this period, and throughout subsequent years, conservative estimates suggest that 25% to 30% of the world’s population succumbed3. This is not to say that the current pandemic has the same mortality rate, but fear of infection and its consequences will produce similar results in human thought and behaviour, at any point in time.
Apart from the terrible toll in life, the 14th century pandemic had enormous social impacts—some produced by this devastating mortality rate, but many produced by people’s views regarding the plague. How these views spread, and what their effects were, is of interest in an age of digital communication. Rumour, gossip, and misinformation were key in the changing society of the 14th century, and two trends are clear from historical documents: the way people viewed the sick and what they felt should be done about them4,5; and the way people thought the pandemic would change their living and working conditions6,7. That is, fear of the present, and anxiety about the future. All of this sounds vaguely familiar to the 21st century observer.
Already commentaries have noted that a noticeable aspect of the current pandemic is the correlation between the spread of the disease and the spread of discussion about the disease: “…not only did the virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information—and misinformation—about the outbreak, and thus the panic that it created among the public.”8. Quantification of this level of rumour, gossip, and misinformation, has already been attempted9,10. In a recent study9, it was noted that nearly 50% of tweets include either misinformation (30%), or unverifiable information (20%), regarding COVID-19, its causes, and/or effects. The impact of this information is to reinforce, or create, panic and fear10,11. These emotions will result in anxious individuals perpetuating misinformation, as we shall see below, but we should not too readily dismiss more malign influences—more misinformation is sent from unverified Twitter accounts (31%) than from verified accounts (12%)9.
Why do fear and anxiety provoke such unsubstantiated rumour and gossip, even in the face of all of our scientific advances? One theory suggests that, as gossip produces a good deal of social interaction, with a by-product for the narcissist or sociopath of social influence, people may employ gossip as a coping strategy when under stress12. As that stress and fear over the present turns to long-term anxiety about the future, this gossip turns to scapegoating of the ‘other’—either known or unknown—which reduces anxiety by reinforcing the social cohesiveness of the in-group, at the expense of the out-group13. This is a simple schedule of reinforcement often studied in two-factor learning theory—a fearful situation is escaped through an avoidance response (in this case, a stress-reducing coping behaviour), and that behaviour is repeated. It worked in the 14th century, and it will work now—as our learning mechanisms have not changed. But, the consequences of this stress-reducing gossip can be severe—and the signs about gossip concerning the current crisis are not hopeful in terms of avoiding the same problems as in the past11.
The connection between misinformation, then and now, has already been made concerning the current crisis11, but also can be seen in the documents of the time of the Black Death. Giovanni Boccaccio lived in Florence during the plague, and wrote The Decameron, a story concerning seven men and three women who flee to a villa to escape the disease4. A passage in Boccaccio’s non-fictional introduction to this work provides an insight into the impact of the plague on individuals: “Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.”14. In many cases, the plague was blamed on unknown or unseen agents—like foreigners, bad air, or poisons.
Advances in science and technology did not help to remove such views, as at the start of the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was still common to believe that the disease was spread through miasma, or poisonous vapours10. In the present day, some have believed that COVID-19 is caused by, or spread through, the 5G network15—whatever the wrongs of this technology, coronavirus is not one of them! Thus, many aspects of such gossip and misinformation share a common thread—that of the unseen other or substance—but it is not really known why such false perceptions should persist, even in an age when we know about the germ. One possibility is that such gossip reinforces social bonds, and social contact, and this reinforced social structure reduces fear in the present (a coping strategy). An unseen and unknowable enemy cannot easily be disproved, and the resultant social bonds cannot, thus, be easily broken. Whatever the precise explanation, the avoidance-learning mechanisms are clear—they do not change over time.
The second effect of the misinformation spread during a pandemic is a much more long-lasting one for society—it concerns anxieties about the future. Articles about how the coronavirus epidemic will change the world are not uncommon. This is no different from past reactions to pandemic anxieties. The latter part of the 14th century was a time of great change and uncertainty in the UK: conflict with Europe was unresolved, and the Black Death was devastating the population3. The population wished for better living and working conditions, and gossip and misinformation about how these transformations would be achieved abounded. Much rumour and misinformation concerned the possible long-term effects of the plague on society—fewer workers, it was thought, should mean more money and rights for those left alive. These hopes were quickly dashed by the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers Acts (1349 and 1351), setting wages and living conditions at pre-plague levels. The result was the ‘Great Rumour’ of 1377, and the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ of 13816,7.
Both of these revolts ultimately failed, in part, because the assumptions on which they were based were untrue (fewer people does mean fewer workers, but it also means fewer buyers), undermining their causes6. The changes resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic were more long-lasting—especially in terms of women’s rights (the case that there were too few men to work was indisputable). It can be seen that misinformation is critical to undermining change. Psychologically, a reaction to pandemic-anxiety, that suggests things will be better in the future, is not hard to understand. The generation of easy arguments, that may be false, will help to alleviate this anxiety. If a piece of misinformation, spread quickly via digital communication, and reinforced in echo chambers, serves this anxiety-reducing role, it will perpetuate.
To sum up all of this, Psychology and History tell us that people’s reactions to extreme situations are fairly invariant. Fear and anxiety will produce a need to escape them, and gossip is a suitable candidate for an avoidant coping mechanism. Such gossip can easily lead to misinformation, which can be reinforcing (self-serving) in its own right. The digital age is not different from the 14th century in this respect, but it does offer new twists—speed and reach. This technology could have the potential to unite, but the signs are that a key use in this crisis is to spread gossip and misinformation—just as word-of-mouth did previously. We need to be on our guards about this, and understand that, mostly, this is a response to fear, which we share with our ancestors from 600 years ago.
1. Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.
2. Marr, M. J. (2006). Through the looking glass: Symmetry in behavioral principles? The Behavior Analyst, 29(1), 125.
3. Russell, J.W. (1948). British Medieval Population.
4. EyeWitness to History (2001). The Black Death, 1348. www.eyewitnesstohistory.com
5. Clamp, R. (2000) Coronavirus and the Black Death: Spread of misinformation and xenophobia shows we haven’t learned from our past. The Conversation. 5th March.
6. Galán, F.J.C. (2013). The Black Death: Turning point and end of the Middle Ages? Open Mind. https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/humanities/sociology/the-black-death-turning-point-and-end-of-the-middle-ages/
7. Crombie, L. (2020). A brief history of how people communicated in the Middle Ages. History Extra. https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/a-brief-history-of-how-people-communicated-in-the-middle-ages/
8. Depoux, A., Martin, S., Karafillakis, E., Preet, R., Wilder-Smith, A., & Larson, H. (2020). The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak. Journal of Travel Medicine.
9. Kouzy, R., Abi Jaoude, J., Kraitem, A., El Alam, M. B., Karam, B., Adib, E., ... & Baddour, K. (2020). Coronavirus goes viral: quantifying the COVID-19 misinformation epidemic on Twitter. Cureus, 12(3).
10. Kessler, R. (2020). Outbreak: Lies and Misinformation. Ecohealth Alliance. https://www.ecohealthalliance.org/2018/05/outbreak-lies-and-misinformation
11. Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology.
12. Kakar, U. M. (2013). Workplace gossip as a way of coping with occupational stress. State University of New York at Albany.
13. Gentry, C. E. (2015). Anxiety and the creation of the scapegoated other. Critical Studies on Security, 3(2), 133-146.
14. Boccaccio, G. The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930).
15. Cellan-Jones, R. (26.2.2020). Coronavirus: Fake news is spreading fast. BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-51646309