Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 3;   January 26, 2022: Cyber Rumors in Organizations

Cyber Rumors in Organizations

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Rumor management practices in organizations haven't kept up with rumor propagation technology. Rumors that propagate by digital means — cyber rumors — have longer lifetimes, spread faster, are more credible, and are better able to reinforce each other.
The iconic image of cyber code, as popularized in the film The Matrix

The iconic image of cyber code, as popularized in the film The Matrix.

Rumors in organizations can be expensive. Because they limit the ability of the organization to unite to achieve shared goals, rumors complicate the task of managing the organization. Unfortunately, much of what we believe about managing rumors predates the arrivals of digital communication and social media. And those outdated beliefs about rumors add to the difficulty of managing cyber rumors in organizations.

For example, consider one phrase we often use in connection with discussions of rumors: word of mouth. When we use a mental model of rumor propagation based on word-of-mouth transmission, we're limiting our considerations to synchronous, face-to-face transmission. That is, we're biasing our thinking by limiting it to actual person-to-person conversation. While that does happen in modern organizations, face-to-face conversation comprises a declining portion of all exchanges between people. And that bias leads to rumor control strategies that are less effective than they might be if they had been developed unencumbered by a bias favoring face-to-face communication.

Rumors tell you either what people hope might be true, or what they fear might be true, or what their biases tell them is true. Rumors are useful if that's what you want to know. But if what you want to know is truth about anything else, rumors can be misleading. They can mislead entire organizations, despite the most energetic attempts by Management to limit the impact of rumors.

This Rumors tell you either what people hope
might be true, or what they fear might be
true, or what their biases tell them is true
post is an attempt to balance the conversation about rumor management by drawing attention to the differences between cyber rumor propagation and pre-cyber rumor propagation. Here are three important differences.

Cyber rumors have longer lifetimes
For pre-cyber rumors the transmission medium was voice or print. If by voice, rumors could propagate in person or by telephone. If by print, rumors could propagate in hardcopy by mail or by hand exchange. Both means of transfer, which still operate, have limited lifetimes. The pre-cyber voice channel was clearly time limited. Hardcopy was more durable, but hardcopy could be discarded, mislaid, buried under other hardcopy, or filed. Unless people took intentional steps to preserve or duplicate hardcopy, it was unlikely to propagate far.
By contrast, cyber-rumors are far more durable. Voice can be recorded. Even video can be recorded. Email or text messages can be duplicated readily. Even if filed, search tools can recover email or text quickly. Widespread access to image search is already available. Access to video and voice search is no doubt just over the horizon.
Cyber rumors propagate more rapidly
Pre-cyber rumors that propagated most rapidly probably exploited the telephone. So let's compare rumor propagation speed for the era before the smartphone (pre-Blackberry) to the propagation speed for the smartphone era. The most significant rate limiter for this channel is access to the telephone. In the pre-smartphone era, access to the telephone was limited to the time the user was actually in-office. Given the patterns of meetings and travel, it's fair to assume that many users spent less than 50% of their days in reach of their telephones. This pattern is probably one factor that drove development of answering systems. In the pre-smartphone era, then, a rumor could pass from one person to the next by telephone in one call for only about 50% of the business day. That fraction could increase a bit if the transmitter felt comfortable enough to leave a record of the rumor in voicemail.
But in the smartphone era, people have access to their phones more than 100% of the business day. Access is greater than 100% because people converse after hours. Moreover, because smartphones also support email, Web, and text channels, smartphones also accelerate rumor propagation velocities for text-based channels. Velocities are now so high that passive rumor monitoring ("I can act to suppress a rumor only if I hear about it somehow") is of little value as a rumor management system component.
Cyber rumors have higher R0
Models of disease contagion use a parameter R0 (pronounced R-naught) to represent the number of people to whom an infected person can transmit the disease. Rumors aren't disease, but we can model their spread using similar mathematics. Specifically, in most cases, the R0 of cyber rumors is higher than the R0 of pre-cyber rumors for two reasons.
First, cyber rumors replicate more readily because they exist in a medium that supports replication. Indeed, the act of transmitting a cyber rumor is almost certainly an act of replication. By contrast, for the case of voice transmission, for example, replication of a pre-cyber rumor requires that one person repeat it aloud to others. Or if the rumor exists in hardcopy, one person must hand it to another, or fire up a photocopier and distribute the copies.
Second, cyber rumors have longer lifetimes. The transmission process can take place essentially forever, as long as someone can find and read a copy of the rumor. By contrast, per-cyber rumors can propagate only as long as someone is willing to repeat them or distribute them. It is this property of cyber rumors that may be the basis of optimistic projections for future prospects of the online segment of the reputation management industry.
The result of these seemingly minor differences between cyber rumors and pre-cyber rumors is dramatic. Cyber rumors not only propagate much faster, but their rate of spread is so great that early detection and debunking of cyber rumors must be the focus of any rumor management program. Even more important is information security. Those who are "in the know" about subjects that might be related to possible rumors must take great care not to say or do anything that might be fuel for rumors.
Cyber rumors propagate more faithfully
Because cyber rumors replicate by digital means, they're more likely to be faithful copies of what the person passing them along actually received. People do embellish, but in organizations most of the embellishment happens early in the replication chain.
By contrast, pre-cyber rumors tend to evolve more readily as they propagate, especially if they propagate by voice. The temptation to embellish can be irresistible.
But even if cyber rumors didn't propagate more faithfully, recipients regard cyber rumors as more credible than pre-cyber rumors. Cyber rumors are more likely to appear in writing — email, text messages, or in Web pages (internal or world-facing). And these media, deservedly or not, are generally more credible than is the person who repeats what he or she heard from another person.

Most important, cyber rumors are better able to reinforce each other. Because people have better access to the full array of extant cyber rumors, they're able to create patterns — commonly called conspiracy theories — that tie the rumors together into a plausible framework that makes the individual component cyber rumors more credible. When this happens, the issue is no longer rumor management. It's damage control. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risk of Astonishing Success  Next Issue

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