When rumour has it

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Security outside Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, where Jayalalithaa is admitted. Photo: M. Karunakaran

THE German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who was a precursor of existentialism, had observed: “If God set forth before me the Eternal, unchangeable Truth in his right hand and the eternal quest for Truth in his left hand and said, ‘Choose’, I would point to the left hand and say, ‘Father, give me this, for the eternal, unchangeable Truth belongs to you alone.’”

The remit of journalism is, more modestly, that of fact, not truth, and if facts add up to a truth so much the better for it. But if, in a variation of the choice imagined up by Lessing, and in the hurly-burly of our routine lives, we were offered a choice between fact and rumour, we would, I imagine, even if we won’t admit it, unabashedly opt for rumour. Rumour, it seems, pips fact on every count, except, you may argue, on fact. But then there are rumours which prove to be factual too, just as there are rumours which turn out to be duds. And in such instances, a rumour in a rush could well be the first draft of journalism, just as journalism becomes the first draft of history. It’s chancy alright, but then a rumour is far more exciting while it is a blaze of doubt or hearsay out there than when it is settled either way—as a fact or as a falsehood. Of course, rumours can be, have been, dangerous and incendiary, but that has not prevented their currency. People seem to take to them with gusto irrespective of the consequence.

In a study of last year titled “Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How News Websites spread (and debunk) online rumours, unverified claims, and misinformation”, Craig Silverman, a journalist and fellow at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, makes some troubling observations about the distortions of journalism in the digital age: “Too often news organisations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumours, and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream.” He proceeds to illustrate journalism’s sin of commission by becoming, mindlessly or inadvertently, a propagator of such rumours, or its sin of omission by not proactively combating or debunking them. “Meanwhile,” he points out, “news organisations that maintain higher standards for the content they aggregate and publish remain silent and restrained. They don’t jump on viral content and emerging news—but, generally, nor do they make a concerted effort to debunk or correct falsehoods or questionable claims.” Silverman’s recommendation is that “news organisations should move to occupy the middle ground between mindless propagation and wordless restraint”.

Countering or debunking a runaway rumour, even if a news organisation sets itself to the task, is easier said than done. Rumours rapidly outpace the process of verification, which by its nature, is time consuming and, at the end of it, seemingly a thankless job because once the rumours are put to rest the readers, viewers or listeners have by and large lost interest in the story itself. The rumour, often, is what keeps the story going. Social media, of course, play a big role as the modern breeding grounds and contagion nodes of rumour, myth and urban legend, replacing, or becoming a force multiplier of, their older word-of-mouth transmission.

But these anecdotal figments or exaggerations have always had an existence independent of the media sphere. Social media had not yet come to be when, over 15 years back, the myth of idols of Ganesha drinking milk seized, and was serialised in, the popular imagination for weeks together. It is another matter that today such a phenomenon might find avid official or scholarly support and even become a paper at a national history or science congress of proof of divinity’s fondness for milk.

We have in Donald Trump the more current in-your-face example of the triggering off of rumours. As part of his presidential race, he is also in a race against beleaguered fact-checkers who have the thankless job of inspecting the liberties he takes with facts, which is almost every time he speaks. At his first televised face-off with Hilary Clinton, he lobbed quite a few of these, including about his opposition to the Iraq war and the Obama birther issue, which sent the fact-audit team at CNN scrambling to come up with a verification report, but by the time they did, the presidential debate was done and the follow-up discussion and analysis in the studio was also tapering off, as no doubt was the viewership that had tuned in to watch the event. The large viewership of the charges he kept throwing around was thus not privy to the channel’s finding on how much of these was not factual. Not that it would have made much of a difference anyway to the diehard supporters of Trump. For them, his rumour-mongering, so to speak, is part of his appeal.

Silverman cites, in another posting on a portal, the rapid-rumour-response to Vladimir Putin going missing, that is, being absent from the public, for 10 days recently, and quotes the BBC, which reported that “his disappearance from public view had sparked rumours that he might have fallen ill, died, been removed in a coup, or once again become a father”. That is the kind of range rumours can straddle. Each of those ponderables, depending on the traction it fetches, would have had its own rumour life.

It has been buzzing rumour non-stop these past several days about the state of the health of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa who continues to be in hospital as I write this. Medical diagnoses, prognoses, conspiracy theories, have all done repeated rounds in quick succession on the rumour circuit, and at the end of each round we are no wiser for them. What rumour land refuses to accept at face value are the occasional medical bulletins issued by the hospital, which speak of her responding well to treatment, without much information about the line of treatment itself, and seem to suggest a gradual improvement in her condition. Which, if we choose to believe them for a moment, is how medical cases on average go—they do not quite meet the typical expectation of news for a developing story. In this situation, buffeted by rumours on the one hand, and with little authoritative information to go by on the other, the mainstream press has, as Silverman pointed out earlier, swung the other extreme from “mindless propagation” into “wordless restraint”. Making meaning of such a difficult situation is no doubt a challenge, but the formal media seem to have abandoned the field to the rumourers. And they have been having a field day. All kinds of dismal disinformation is floated, and all kinds of spurious proof to counter it is mounted, including a tacky put-up job of an image purporting to be the Chief Minister in the hospital bed and an audio con job with a poor imitation of her voice assuring the people that she is recouping fast. Alongside, her followers and cadres and leaders of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have been demonstrating their loyalty to her through various acts of ritual contrition. Meanwhile, there have been demands from various quarters for better information, read evidence, about her medical condition, including a rather inelegant one from the leader of the opposition that a photo proof of the lady in the hospital should be released.

Such proof, even when it is authentic and forthcoming, can be double-edged, as we know from the experience a few years ago with the public mediation of Rajnikanth’s illness. The rumour mills were, like now, churning away and spewing various doubts and theories. Eventually, as an alarm limitation exercise, an audio recording of a message from the film star to his fans and well-wishers was released. But the voice there was so weak and raspy that it hardly sounded reassuring. It is the same person who has bounced back and sent his fans into delirium with his emphatic “Kabali da”.

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