Title: HOW RUMORS ARE BORN ,  By: Kapferer, Jean-Noel, Society, 01472011, Jul/Aug92, Vol. 29, Issue 5

To search for sources of rumors is to lend credence to the myth that they generally start with a specific intent. Certainly there are notorious cases of rumors whose appearance in the right place at the right time clearly could not have been accidental--for example, rumors about the private lives of candidates for public office. But rumors are most often spontaneous social products, devoid of ulterior motives and underlying strategies.

The myth of hidden sources is so persistent because it catapults us into a universe of imaginary conspiracy, manipulation, misinformation, and economic and political warfare. Rumors are crimes committed by third parties. They are perfect crimes that leave not the slightest trace and require no weapons.

The source continues to be imbued with mythical importance because it has social utility. In order to hush up rumors among the Allies during the Second World War, the power and efficiency of the so-called "fifth column"--the enemy hidden behind our walls--were made out to be the source of defeatist rumors. Detection of the source exonerates those who had believed the "false" rumor. Their pursuit and accusation of the source is tantamount to a refusal to recognize that they themselves had made a mistake, quite frankly declaring that they had been fooled by someone else. Projecting responsibility for rumors outside a group (traitors can be their only possible source, as they mislead) is not a fortuitous act: it dissimulates true responsibility. There was a rumor, a collective act of talking, because the group seized upon certain information. At every moment, innumerable potential sources send out innumerable signals and messages that have no effect. Now and then, one of them sets off a rumor process. It would be erroneous to think that it is some intrinsic property of the signal or message that accounts for its motor force. At a certain moment, people grabbed hold of the signal or message because it took on meaning for them.

Most facts, signals, and messages are mute or neutral; they acquire the meaning we give them. Not dreaming for a minute that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, Americans did not pay enough attention to the "signals" of preparation or "suspicious" naval concentrations. On the other hand, during the tumult of the French Revolution, groups of people travelling in the countryside on foot were immediately taken for brigands and beggars, recruited by nobles to take vengeance on the people. The proliferation of this generally groundless alarm was dubbed the "Great Fear" by historians. The villagers' sense of insecurity cast ominous shadows on the most insignificant events and created a state of panic.

Sources are ultimately of little importance. What must be explained in the genesis of a rumor is the adherence and mobilization of the group. Even if there is an initial speaker, it is other people who, having heard it, pass it on. To look for the person who started the rumor is to reduce the rumor phenomenon to a purely individual problem that is external to the group, falling into the category of individual pathology: that of an intentional or unintentional pyromaniac, a sorcerer's apprentice, a practical joker who went too far, or someone who tried to get even with someone else. Such scenarios make for good films, but whereas in a film the public plays the role of spectator, in the case of rumors, the public steals the limelight: the public is the main actor.

Experts' Opinion

Since 1978, some well known American companies have been faced with tenacious rumors that either large portions of their capital was controlled by the powerful Unification Church (Moonies), or that they were the outright possession of the devil. Procter & Gamble, McDonald's Hamburgers, Entenmann's Bakery, all have served as grist for the rumor mill. As it turned out, these rumors were started by fundamentalist ministers in the Bible Belt in the South of the United States. Just as in the Middle Ages, religious institutions became the media for rumors.

These rumors were based on the deciphering of signs that could not fool these fundamentalist "experts." The signs were virtual avowals. Procter & Gamble's emblem showed the face of an old Jupiterlike man in the form of a crescent moon gazing at thirteen stars (in honor of the thirteen American states existing at the time the emblem was designed). The rumor focused first on the crescent moon: an obvious allusion to the Moon sect and its founder, the Antichrist incarnate. The rumor next attacked other parts of the emblem thought to be far more revealing: the thirteen stars were claimed to "trace out" the number 666. Satan's number according to one interpretation of a verse found in chapter thirteen of the Book of Revelation. This number was also detected in the curls of the old man's beard, the man himself being revealed to be a ram, Satan's animal form. In April 1985, Procter & Gamble removed the emblem that had appeared on the products since the founding of this highly puritan company more than a century before.

On October 12, 1969, Russ Gibb, a disk jockey at a Detroit radio station specializing in pop music, received a phone call during a live broadcast from a young man who detailed a few extraordinary coincidences: if, for example, one played the Beatles' song "Revolution Number 9" backwards, one heard that the refrain "Number 9, number 9, number 9" became "Turn me on, dead man!"; similarly, at the end of the song "Strawberry Fields" on the Magical Mystery Tour album, if one listened carefully and eliminated the background noise, one heard John Lennon murmur, "I buried Paul!" According to Tom, this explained why Paul McCartney had not been seen in public for quite some time.

Two days after Russ Gibb's radio show, the University of Michigan's newspaper, the Michigan Daily, announced in large print: "McCartney is Dead: Further Clues Found." Fred Labour, editor of the paper's pop section, wrote: "Paul McCartney was killed in a car accident in early November 1966 after leaving the EMI studios tired, sad, and depressed." The article was "documented" with a few "facts." On the inside cover of the Sergeant Pepper album, Paul McCartney is wearing on his arm a badge bearing the letters OPD, standing for "Officially Pronounced Dead." On the back cover, all the Beatles face-on except Paul McCartney. The Beatles were also said to have sprinkled clues on the Abbey Road album cover. John Lennon is dressed like a clergyman, Ringo Starr is wearing black like an undertaker, and George Harrison, appearing in workman's garb, stands ready to dig a grave. As for McCartney, we see him crossing a street, barefoot, and everyone knows that in Tibetan burial rituals (very much in vogue at the time) dead people are barefoot. Moreover, the license plate of the Volkswagen parked in the street bears the inscription "28 IF," that is, the exact age Paul McCartney would have been "IF" he had lived. This was enough to get the rumor going.

Confidential Information

Rumors arise when information is scarce. In the exchange of information constituted by rumors are the principles that rule all forms of exchange. Information circulates because it has value, because it is worth its weight in gold! Many rumors stem from secrets that have been more or less intentionally leaked. We are attuned to what happens at the end of banquets and receptions when, because of general high spirits, a politician reveals confidential information or an aside on some subject of importance to the town. When one overhears a conversation between two people, unbeknownst to them, on a train, at a restaurant, or on the telephone, for example, one gains access to confidential information.

Psychologists have long wondered whether a message heard in such a way is more persuasive than one heard directly. In a series of experiments, two people would enter a subway car during rush hour, a crowded elevator, or would stand in a long line at a movie theater, making sure they were not right next to each other so that their conversation could be overheard by those between them. The experiments showed that messages overheard unbeknownst to the speakers were superior if the overhearer was already concerned about the subject discussed and if the message confirmed an already formed opinion. In overhearing conversations, we do not think anyone is attempting to persuade us, and thus unconsciously we consider the conversation to reflect the speakers' authentic opinion. The procedure can of course be reversed if one wants to start a rumor. In the United States, for example, a public relations agency, W. Howard Downey and Associates, built its reputation on its ability to get teams of specialists to a particular place within hours to get rumors started.

A Troubling Fact

The source of many rumors is troubling because rumors mobilize a group's attention. In the course of successive exchanges, the group tries to reconstruct the puzzle of scattered pieces gathered here and there. The fewer the pieces, the greater the role the group's unconscious plays in their interpretation.

On November 20, 1984, fighting broke out in New Delhi: "Have you heard the news? It seems the President has been assassinated. . ." At 11 a.m., commotion at the embassies alerted by their Indian employees, was at its height. By noon, telephone operators at press agencies were overwhelmed with telephone calls: Is it true? Is it not true? At 1 p.m. in several neighborhoods, shopkeepers (Sikhs and non-Sikhs) pushed their customers out and quickly closed up. By mid-afternoon, bureaucrats and bank employees requested to leave early. Pupils were sent home before the bell. At 7 p.m., overwrought New Delhi was talking about nothing else. At 9 p. m., the evening television news announcer quashed the rumor: "Mr. Zail Singh is doing fine. He spent the whole afternoon with a number of visitors." On the screen, the president appeared. Behind those "eight hours of cold sweat" was an ambiguous fact: someone had in fact died that very day at the presidential palace--a gardener had been killed. Still affected by Indira Gandhi's assassination, Indian public opinion was on the verge of panic.

In France, a rumor broke out on the Riviera a few years ago: special firefighting planes, known as Canadairs, were said to have inadvertently scooped up swimmers as they were filling up on water. The unfortunate swimmers were claimed to have been directly dumped into a blazing forest fret An article in an aviation journal explained that a dead man had been found in a bathing suit in a charred area where Canadairs had been working. His presence in bathing attire so far from the sea was intriguing. The hypothesis was put forth--alongside other more realistic ones--that he had been sucked up by a Canadair and dropped to an atrocious death.

The vague recollection of such real but trivial events announced in the news often provides a ready-made scenario to explain some troubling event. In a working-class neighborhood in Metz, for example, a rumor sprang up in November 1984: "An unfortunate child has been devoured by a dog. It seems that all that remained were his legs," wrote the newspaper L'Est Republicain. At its origin was the real death of a three-month old girl due to respiratory failure. Her family did in fact have a German shepherd, but the only thing he devoured that day was his usual can dog food. The rumor was not surprising though. The press had often reported on outbursts of instinctual aggressiveness in German shepherds, especially directed against young children. Such happenings are not just in the papers--why could they not happen right next door?


Believing that there is a grain of truth in certain rumors involves a risk many people take lightly. In reality what is called the grain of truth is the ambiguous fact rumors echo. Facts do not exist, only the reporting of facts. Testifying to that which one has seen or heard has any real existence. Rumors start less from facts than from their perception. The study of rumors inescapably leads to the psychology of testimony. Criminologists and jurists have long shown how much we overestimate our perceptual abilities. Many laboratory experiments shown this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

A classic type of experiment involves the set-up of an incident for a group of unsuspecting people, who are then asked to write up a report about what they have seen. One of the founders of legal psychology, the Frenchman Claparede, for example, organized the following scenario: the day after the famous mascarade festival held in Geneva every year, a disguised person burst into Claparede's class on legal psychology. The intruder began gesticulating and mumbled a few more or less incomprehensible words. Claparede threw him out of the lecture hall. The incident lasted all of twenty seconds. The professor then immediately handed out a questionnaire with eleven questions to the class: the mean number of correct answers was but four and a half. The students' errors were quite significant. The individual chosen to provoke the incident was wearing a long gray cotton coat, dark slacks that were virtually invisible under his long coat. white gloves, and a light-brown and white scarf: his hair was hidden under a grey felt hat. In one hand he was holding a cane, and in the other a pipe; over his arm hung a blue apron. Most students mentioned the coat, cane, hat, and scarf. But according to some, the hat was made of straw, while others stated it was a top hat. Some mentioned checkered pants, and his hair was said to be black, brown, blond, grey, and even white. The majority of students maintained that the scarf was red, that he was not wearing gloves, and so on.

Claparede was one of the first people to show that witnesses testify more in accordance with the degree of probability of things than with what they have observed. Thus the disturbance caused by this individual could but have been the work of a revolutionary, and everyone knows that when a revolutionary wears a scarf, it has to be red. Durandin, an expert in the study of lies, summarized the results of this and related experiments as follows: 1) completely accurate testimony is most unusual; 2) witnesses provide false information with the same self-assurance as they provide true information, and with the same good intentions; 3) What we state sometimes reflects more our mental stereotypes than what we have really seen; 4) when the testimony of several different witnesses converges, it is not necessarily an indication of the truth of their declarations--having the same stereotypes and mental scenarios, they merely perceived the facts identically, but still erroneously. Factors favoring error are movement (as in the case of car accidents), the fleetingness of the perceived object or scene, the witness' physical state, the extent of biases and stress level at the particular moment.


Twenty years ago, while on a speaking tour of France, an activist opposing white slave trade warned of an invisible danger and the need to alert parents and young girls, and accused the authorities of indolence. Just before or very shortly after she was in Laval, a rumor of white slave trading shook the town. A few years later, the popular magazine Noir et Blanc, since defunct, presented the following scenario as a real "recent" event (in fact taken from the erotic novel, L'Esclavage sexuel [Sexual Slavery]):

In Grenoble, a businessman was driving his young wife to an elegant clothing store in town. He waited in the car for half an hour, then three-quarters of an hour, and finally grew impatient. He went in to look for his wife and was told, "We've never seen her here." As he was absolutely sure he'd seen her go into the store, he became suspicious but carefully hid his suspicions. He apologized to the salesmen. got back in his car and drove straight to the nearest police station. The police officers, having reasons of their own to be suspicious of the store, soon surrounded the building the store was in, and began carrying out a thorough search. They were said to have found the young woman in the back of the store in a very deep sleep. On her right arm the police found the mark of a needle: she had been drugged.

A week after this article appeared, a rumor with the very same scenario began circulating in Orleans. It surfaced once again, almost word for word, later in March 1985. Its target this time was a well-known women's clothing store in La Roche-sur-Yon.

The source of such rumors is the pure and simple projection: "Someone" imagines that the scenario was being played out right next door, or in the downtown shopping area, and people will believe it. Who was this someone? It is of little importance whether it was X or Y. Edgar Morin and his co-workers traced the rumor to an all-girls' religious school. Adolescents, isolated from the rest of the world, are fertile ground for sexual fantasies to flourish.

The incarnation of fantasies in reality is not rare. Carl G. Jung drew attention to a rumor that arose in a girls' boarding school. A teacher was accused of having had sex with one of the students. In fact, it had all started with an adolescent girl telling a dream she had to three girlfriends. Jung called such rumors, grounded exclusively in the imagination, "visionary rumors" distinguishing them from "ordinary rumors."

Contemporary Urban Legends

Anchoring a myth in reality also explains the regular, yet unpredictable reappearance of rumors sociologists call "exemplary stories", and folklorists call "urban legends." These stories seem like short moral tales, and their appearance does not have an apparent link to any tangible fact.

In July 1982, mothers in Wittenheim, Alsace, were upset about a story that a small child had been bitten by a tiny snake hidden in a bunch of bananas at a supermarket; though rushed to the hospital, the child supposedly died. The supermarket was quickly deserted. The same rumor had already stirred trouble in several other French towns. It had also sprung up in the United States, going there by the name of the "K-Mart snake," and have circulated widely elsewhere in Europe. It closely resembles parents' warnings to their children not to eat too much candy or touch anything on store shelves. Were such warnings suddenly taken seriously by a child who attributed them to a store next door? The school would provide the necessary echo chamber and large numbers of relays. Recess is the crucial period for the spreading of rumors among children.

Rumors then migrate and slowly move from one town to another, being "brought up to date" from time to time in the course of their existence by the someone who tells it. Then people start imagining that it just happened yesterday, and things speed up from one telling to the next. The story thus has an underground existence as a semi-legend with no spatial or temporal reference. It is a contemporary urban legend. On a certain day, in a certain discussion, it anchors itself in reality: it is happening here and now. One day it breaks out in Nice, and the next day in Glasgow; still later it erupts in Liege in Belgium or in Evanston, Illinois. Who transforms it from a timeless, city-less narrative into today's news? No one knows anymore. Such insignificant details are easily forgotten.

The rumor about mice found in Coca-Cola is an example of a rumor based in fact. Consumers in United States found bits of mice in bottles of Coke. Judicial records show that a suit was first filed and won by a consumer in 1914 in Mississippi. Since then, forty-four suits have been brought against companies that bottle Coca-Cola. Though these suits received little publicity, the facts fired the imaginations and the rumor spread over the whole country. The anecdote is now a part of American oral tradition of stories told about Coca-Cola; it is also a warning for the mysterious drink whose recipe is kept such a guarded secret.

Anyone who has ever lived in New York City has at one time or other heard that the city's sewer system was infested with alligators. How could such animals have found their way to such an unlikely place? According to certain versions, it all started with a family that had brought back baby alligators from their vacation in Florida. Having tired of them, they flushed them down the toilet. Living on detritus and rats, the saurians were said to have survived and thrived. The rumor was often denied by the city sewer department. No sewer worker has ever reported seeing an alligator, but many New Yorkers believe the city's underworld was in a jungle state.

Loren Coleman, an anthropologist, found about seventy newspapers and magazines articles reporting untimely encounters with alligators in the most unexpected of places between 1843 and 1973. Only one article, in the New York Times in 1935, mentions sewers, and they were Manhattan sewers, as it turns out. That such an event may have occurred changes nothing in our diagnosis. The fact that this trivial item was handed down for more than fifty years and is now part and parcel of American folklore shows the extent to which it struck the popular imagination, fascinated by the shrouded mysteries of a subterranean world.

In September 1984, police officers and authorities of the Dordogne region in France tracked a crocodile "seen" in river waters in Castelnau-la-Chapelle and Beyssac, without success. The fact that real encounters with alligators in public and unlikely places have occurred--encounters detailed in the press--should not obscure a fundamental point concerning these "urban legends," which would better be called "exemplary stories."

Rumors always add a detail that is not contained in the stories covered by the media. In the rumors of alligators in the sewers, it is significant that the reptiles were always said to have been "flushed down the toilet." Of the seventy articles listed by Coleman, only one mentioned a sewer (the baby alligator had been dumped down storm drains). The intangible persistence of these two details has an essential meaning in the rumor's lasting vogue. Similarly, while it is true that cargos brought mygales and snakes back from their tropical trips, in the rumors of snakes at local K-Marts, the animal found its way right up to the customer. The snake was most often associated with a bunch of bananas, and the victim was always a child. There is thus a systematic, legendary addition that persists around the kernel of truth.

It is the process of anchoring urban legends in the reality of a particular time and place that explains the perennial appearance the rumor of the phantom hitchhiker. In May 1982, people in the Vendee region along France's Atlantic coast suddenly began speaking about the mystery of the hitchhiking monk. The tale told was always the same. The time is evening or night; on the side of a road a monk stands hitchhiking. A driver stops and invites him to get in the car; the monk sits in the back seat.

According to the witnesses, he is alone and says very little until he makes several statements that sound like predictions: "We'll have a hot summer and a bloody fall." Intrigued, the driver or passenger in the front seat turns around. But there is no one in the back seat: the monk has disappeared without the vehicle ever having stopped. When dumbfound drivers presumably report the incident to the police they are informed that others have had the same experience.

An investigation showed that no one had ever reported such an incident. The supposed eye-witnesses, the drivers, who were said to have picked up the strange passenger, always fumed out to be only intermediaries. The story had been told to them by someone else. Two things are certain: monks travel throughout France and can thus be seen in the Vendee region. The story of the hitchhiking monk is part of a general category of stories well known to folklore specialists: the phantom hitchhiker.


Rumors often arise due to false interpretations of messages. Misunderstandings relate to one person's report on what another person reported, and to a difference between what was transmitted and what was decoded.

In mid-February 1984, the inhabitants of Algiers worried that a "cyclone" would wreak havoc in the capital. For two weeks, a rumor was gaining force that a cyclone would hit, far as the city may be from the tropics. It was Japanese forecasters, well known experts of natural disasters, who supposedly informed the local authorities. Furthermore, and this is what proved important, doctors had been advised to ready hospitals for the weekend. As a matter of fact, at certain hospitals staff were ordered to remain on duty due to "atmospheric disturbances." Shops were assailed with orders for bottled mineral water. Concerned city dwellers decided to get away from the capital for a few days. It fumed out that an ORSEC (a rescue organization) emergency plan was going to be tested, but that the orders had been misunderstood.

In January 1986, a rumor hit the Savoy region: "Haroun Tazieff has announced on television that six (or ten) meters of snow were going to fall, and that the town of Chamonix was in danger of being wiped off the map." According to other people, the forecast came from the star weatherman on French television's channel 2, Alain Gillot-Petre. The rumor spread as far as Dijon, where over five feet of snow were supposed to fall. The secretary of state for natural disasters, a famous volcano specialist by the name of Haroun Tazieff, does in fact often appear on television: a mistake in comprehension is not unlikely. Moreover, the oft-announced return of Halley's comet must have impressed some television watchers; they were unconsciously expecting some sort of fallout. An avalanche of snow seemed still more believable.

Turkish immigrant workers saw their fondest hopes and lifelong dreams come true when they read an article in Turceman in April of 1980 that seemed to say that authorities in Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France were granting residence and work permits to those who did not have any. Within days, 3,500 illegal Turkish immigrant workers converged on Mulhouse. What had in fact happened was that Turceman had published an article about a clandestine immigrant in Colmar who was given a receipt for a request for papers in order to be able to undergo an operation he needed, that is, a humanitarian question. The article showed a picture of the Turk as well as a facsimile of the receipt. The journalist ask: "What will happen when the receipt, good for only three months, expires?" But for the Turkish readership, the only thing that stuck in their minds was that an illegal worker had received "a paper." Nothing more was needed to set off a trans-European race to Mulhouse.

A famous historical case illustrates how the process of misunderstanding can be repeated: as the new message passed on remains ambiguous, the following hearer is justified in making his own interpretation. During the First World War, a German newspaper, the Kolaische Zeitung, was the first to announce that the city of Antwerp had fallen into German hands. The headline read: "Upon Proclamation of the Fall of the City of Antwerp, Bells Were Rung." As the newspaper was German, it was self-evident that bells were rung in honor of the victory. The information was taken up by the French paper Le Matin: "According to the Kolnische Zeitung, Antwerp's clergy was forced to ring the church bells when the fortress was taken." The information reported in Le Matin was then repeated by the London Times: "According to Le Matin, priests in Belgium who refused to ring church bells upon the fall of Antwerp were removed from office." The fourth version appeared in an Italian paper, the Corriere de la Sera: "According to the Times, citing information from Cologne (via Paris), the unfortunate priests who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken were condemned to hard labor." Le Matin, then repeated the "news" stating: "According to information reported by the Corriere de la Sera. (via Cologne and London), it has been confirmed that Antwerp's barbaric conquerors punished unfortunate priests for heroically refusing to ring church bells by hanging them in the bells head down like human gongs."

While the difference between the first and last version is enormous, the shift from one version to the next conforms to a logic of clarification of ambiguous words or of selective perception of words. Each reporter added something new: faced with a paucity of information, he tried to reconstruct a complete picture, ready and willing to create the missing pieces. Each addition reflected the prevailing mood: the First World War was almost a holy war. France wanted to take its revenge on the Germans for the affront it had suffered at their hands in 1870. One becomes an even greater hero, if the enemy is portrayed as barbarian. This distortion confirmed the popular stereotypes of the Germans and justified the population's latent anxiety. It was not a question of bungled readings. Error in fact consists in constructing information according to a plausible scenario, and rumors reflect images and stereotypes that have gained currency.

Manipulation and Disinformation

In November 1968, a rumor circulated that very seriously slandered the wife of Georges Pompidou, the former French prime minister who later became president. The rumor, related to the Stefan Markovic assassination, arose from a letter dated October 10, 1968, that was addressed to movie actor Alain Delon by a young Yugoslav, held prisoner in Fresnes, who was a mend of Markovic's. The letter made slanderous accusations and was seized by the penitentiary administration. Though the prisoner declared that his letter to Delon was spontaneous, that is, no one had told him to write it, subsequent investigation attributed it to a fellow prisoner, convicted for forgery and the use of forgeries.

In February 1976, a simple typewritten page began circulating bearing a list of food additives, dividing them into three groups: carcinogenic, possibly harmful, and innocuous. According to this flyer, a great many common products and brands were lethal. Where did the flyer come from? Who typed the first copy? No one ever found out. It was, nevertheless, copied and recopied by thousands of volunteers struck by the seriousness of the accusations and the ominous specter of the word "cancer." It is estimated that since that time, seven million people have seen the flyer and been "poisoned" by the rumor.

A closer reading of the flyer revealed its dubious character. Most food additives prohibited in France, and thus not used in currently available products, were placed in the innocuous category. Entirely harmless substances, on the other hand, were claimed to be carcinogenic. The flyer listed E330, for example, as the most dangerous of all. This "mysterious" code refers to everyday citric acid, naturally found in oranges and lemons, most people consume daily in more or less ample quantities. As Professor Maurice Tubiana, a cancer specialist and director of the Gustave-Roussy Institute in Villejuif (near Paris), put it, "The flyer lists as dangerously carcinogenic a whole series of extremely innocuous substances found in everyday food. [. . .] Every scientist who has read it has burst out laughing at its load of inanities."

In the course of being copied and recopied. an explicit reference to the Villejuif Hospital showed up on the flyer, suggesting that the flyer had been authorized by the hospital. The Gustave-Roussy Institute repeatedly denied having anything to do with the list, but could not put a stop to it--in 1986 the leaflet was still going around. Persuaded that it was authentic, individuals passed it on in elementary schools, social organizations, hospitals, and medical and pharmacy schools particularly responsive to references to the illustrious hospital. Newspapers printed it verbatim, without checking its accuracy. Still worse, in 1984, a doctor writing a popular book on cancer and included the list of carcinogenic products without looking into them, thus adding the weight of the medical authority to the false information, making people suspicious of innocent products like "La Vache-qui-Rit" (Laughing Cow) cheese and Amora brand mustard. What was the intention of those who first put the flyer in circulation?

The emergence of a rumor without any apparent motive other than sheer mischief can be seen in the case of Leonid Brezhnev's illness a few years ago. Rumors were rife at the time when the head of the Soviet Union was not seen in public for five weeks. According to ever "well-informed" sources, his illness ran the gamut from a toothache to leukemia. The rumor that Brezhnev was coming to Massachusetts to be treated in a world-renowned cancer clinic sprang up in Boston. The widely read daily paper, the Boston Globe, even officially announced his arrival.

What had in fact happened was that someone had fed the name "L. Brezhnev" into the clinic's computer, putting it on the list of expected patients and then contacted various agencies like the Boston Globe and the city police. The paper requested more information from Washington, and when no denial was forthcoming and the fact was repeated by the police, it published the information.

Typology of Rumors

Many rumors are the result of an event whose meaning is uncertain or ambiguous. If, say, eleven young soldiers disappear from a military camp, this is certainly an event that will set off rumors, especially if the official investigation turns up nothing. The second type starts from a detail or sign, that is, something very tenuous that had hitherto gone unnoticed. Such was the case of the rumor concerning the mysterious meaning of food additives. Near nuclear plants, the birth of an abnormal calf or chicken prompts rumors about excessive leaks of radioactivity. Thus some people's selective attention unveils a previously hidden "reality."

The third type of rumor, known as "exemplary stories" or "modern urban legends" are stories that regularly crop up here and there without any precipitating fact. Most "snake-at-K-Mart" rumors develop from scratch. In a suburb where they spring up, one finds not the slightest event that could be misinterpreted and thus fire off the rumor. That these floating stories become "true" somewhere shows that some people make no distinction between fantasy and reality. This trait, known as mythomania, is not rare. The Orleans' rumor, for instance, was traced to female junior high students, twelve to thirteen years old. At their age, bordering on puberty, fantasies hold sway and some girls indulge in make-believe. Once the story is convincingly told, it takes on a life of its own.

In all three categories, rumors may arise spontaneously; they reflect natural processes within social groups. Rumors can also be provoked, their objectives varying from deliberate misinformation to a search for sensationalism. For example, when Pope John Paul I died thirty-three days after he was elected to office, a journalist suggested that his death was "surprising" so soon after taking office. The most likely explanation seemed to be that he had been poisoned.

The Procter & Gamble case provides an example of the fifth type of rumor. No one had paid much attention to the corporate emblem on Tide, Pampers, Ivory, Mr. Clean, and Head and Shoulders packaging before a fundamentalist religious community not only drew attention to it but also engendered its satanic explanation. Leaks and confidential information also fall under this category of rumors. Insiders who wish to remain anonymous call attention to some detail and in the meantime provide an explanation. This is quite frequent in politics and at the stock exchange. This typology of rumors is based on their etiology.

Facts and Fantasy

All rumors are the product of fact and imagination. Different types of rumors reflect the prevalence of either realism or imagination and subjectivity in the production of a rumor's content. Some rumors dwell almost exclusively in the imaginary phreatic layer, that is, in the collective data bank of symbols and unconscious mythical motives. "Modern legends" or "exemplary stories" have attracted the attention of folklorists. Rumors with a predominantly realistic slant cannot eliminate the influence of the imaginary. For the stock market, the interpretation of a bond's unexpected rise or fall remains subjective even if it is subject to the censorship of rational filters.

Sightings of UFOs and stories of kidnappings by extraterrestrial beings are theoretically not rumors. Unlike in rumors, there is an initial witness who saw the UFO or said he was kidnapped. In the case of rumors, the word always comes from the FOAF (friend of a friend), disclosing a story that was not previously known. The story bears upon a third person who can either remain silent, deny, or confirm the story. These rumors take the form of "it's been said that." The person saying it is not an "official" source. In the case of UFO sightings and kidnappings, the original witness is the official source. Unlike rumors, which are what we might call "proto-memorates," UFO stories usually begin with a "I personally saw a flying saucer."

Here we have an authentic subjective experience that is totally imaginary, but was taken to be real by the original witness, who officially proclaimed it to those around him by word of mouth or mass media. Rumors are what is left unsaid, that is, things not yet confirmed by official sources.


By Jean-Noel Kapferer


Jean-Noel Kapferer is an internationally recognized expert on rumors. He is professor of communication at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales and at l'Institut Superieur des Affaires in Paris, and president of the Foundation pour l'Etude et l' Information sur les Rumeurs. He is author of numerous books on communication and persuasion. This article has been adapted from his book Rumors, Uses, Interpretation, and Images, published by Transaction