How rumors become facts—and what we can do about it!

In a rather bizarre way my home country, The Netherlands, is playing a part in the election for the forthcoming GOP nomination. This past February, candidate Rick Santorum made some curious observations on the way euthanasia is regulated in Holland.

In short, he claimed that 10 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands are from euthanasia, and 50 percent of those die involuntarily. Bogus, concluded the Fact Checker of the Washington Post: “There appears to be not a shred of evidence to back up Santorum’s claims about euthanasia in the Netherlands.”

Santorum’s remarks also made the headlines of Dutch newspapers:

Leading daily NRC Handelsblad revealed Santorum has been making these inaccurate statements since 2009.

This repugnant example of ‘fact-free’ politics made me think about our role as communications professionals and our job of ‘framing’ the message for our clients.

Do we live in a world today where opinions, word-of-mouth, and rumors are taken at face-value?  Is a sound bite or an inflammable statistic more valued and more important than plain fact?

Framing has become a daily routine and too often this technique has become a goal in itself. We use framing without reflecting on the impact it may have on society, and that makes me feel uncomfortable.

For Rick Santorum, statements were made in an effort to make a strong point. You may think, who cares, it won’t stick. But that is exactly the point; it does linger on in people’s minds, especially when it is repeated again and again.

Research by David Dubois and others show that a rumor (or a lie, for that matter) can rapidly evolve into fact as it is passed along a chain of people. Even when we are not sure if a rumor or statement is true, the initial ‘tag of uncertainty’ is quickly lost the more it is retold. And that is how rumors become true. It’s also a fact that we increasingly live in a social media environment that thrives on rumors.

As communications stewards, we should be aware of this phenomenon more than ever and reflect on our ethics. What is the impact of framing? Are there any risks for society? Old-fashioned as it may be, I advocate craftsmanship based on facts.