In the social sciences, a rumor involves some kind of a statement whose veracity is not quickly or ever confirmed. In addition, some scholars have identified rumor as a subset of propaganda. Sociology, psychology, and communication studies have widely varying definitions of rumor.
Rumors are also often discussed with regard to "misinformation" and "disinformation" (the former often seen as simply false and the latter seen as deliberately false, though usually from a government source given to the media or a foreign government). Rumors thus have often been viewed as particular forms of other communication concepts.
In the past, much research on rumor came from psychological approaches (as the discussion of Allport and DiFonzio demonstrates above). The focus was especially on how statements of questionable veracity (absolutely false to the ears of some listeners) circulated orally from person to person. Scholarly attention to political rumors is at least as old as Aristotle's Rhetoric; however, not until recently has any sustained attention and conceptual development been directed at political uses of rumor, outside of its role in war situations. Almost no work had been done until recently on how different forms of media and particular cultural-historical conditions may facilitate a rumor's diffusion.
The Internet's recent appearance as a new media technology has shown ever new possibilities for the fast diffusion of rumor, as the debunking sites such as snopes.com, urbanlegend.com, and factcheck.org demonstrate. Nor had previous research taken into consideration the particular form or style of deliberately chosen rumors for political purposes in particular circumstances (even though significant attention to the power of rumor for mass-media-diffused war propaganda has been in vogue since World War I; see Lasswell 1927). In the early part of the 21st century, some legal scholars have attended to political uses of rumor, though their conceptualization of it remains social psychological and their solutions to it as public problem are from a legal scholarly perspective, largely having to do with libel and privacy laws and the damage to personal reputations.
Working within political communication studies, in 2006, Jayson Harsin introduced the concept of the "rumor bomb" as a response to the widespread empirical phenomenon of rumoresque communication in contemporary relations between media and politics, especially within the complex convergence of multiple forms of media, from cell phones and internet, to radio, TV, and print. Harsin starts with the widespread definition of rumor as a claim whose truthfulness is in doubt and which often has no clear source even if its ideological or partisan origins and intents are clear. He then treats it as a particular rhetorical strategy in current contexts of media and politics in many societies. For Harsin a "rumor bomb" extends the definition of rumor into a political communication concept with the following features:
- A crisis of verification. - A crisis of verification is perhaps the most salient and politically dangerous aspect of rumor. Berenson (1952) defines rumor as a kind of persuasive message involving a proposition that lacks 'secure standards of evidence' (Pendleton 1998).
- A context of public uncertainty or anxiety about a political group, figure, or cause, which the rumor bomb overcomes or transfers onto an opponent.
- A clearly partisan even if an anonymous source (e.g. "an unnamed advisor to the president"), which seeks to profit politically from the rumor bomb’s diffusion.
- A rapid diffusion via highly developed electronically mediated societies where news travels fast.
In addition, Harsin locates the "rumor bomb" within other communication genres, such as disinformation (intentional false information) and propaganda,as rumor has been viewed by others. However, he distinguishes it from these concepts as well, since disinformation is often too associated with government, and propaganda is a widely varying concept used to describe attempts to control opinion without regard for ethics and accuracy of statement. Similarly, "spin" is a generic term for strategic political communication that attempts to frame or re-frame an event or a statement in a way that is politically profitable for one side and detrimental to another, though at its core it may simply be a red herring (Bennett 2003, p. 130).
In addition, a "smear campaign" is a term that loosely means a coordinated effort to attack a person's character. Unlike a "smear campaign," rumor bombs need not be about discrediting a person (as is the case, for example, in claims about
A rumor bomb can be seen as having some characteristics of these general concepts, but rumor bombs happen in very particular cultural and historical conditions. They are not about mouth-to-ear interpersonal rumors as much rumor research has been interested in. They begin in a rapport between deliberate "disinformers" and media, whether TV news, talk shows, newspapers, radio, or websites. They then circulate across these media, perhaps but not necessarily resulting in interpersonal mouth-to-ear rumor diffusion.
Harsin distinguishes the rumor bomb from other more general concepts of rumor by emphasizing changes in politics, media technology, and culture. According to Harsin, rumor in politics has always existed, but recent changes have created an environment ripe for a new kind of political rumor: a new media "convergence culture" where information produced on the internet can influence the production of media content in other forms;new media technologies and business values that emphasize speed and circulation that combine with entertainment values in news, political marketing, and public craving of tabloid news that mirrors other entertainment genres.
Rumors of affairs, of "weapons of mass destruction" and their alleged removal to other countries"John Kerry is French," Obama is a Muslim, John McCain had an illegitimate black child—all of these involve statements whose veracity is in question or that are simply false. Other statements may have an ambiguous nature that makes them potentially appealing to different audiences who may interpret them in particular ways and circulate them. Harsin builds on rumor research that has emphasized social cognition and diffusion of propaganda. He extends Prashant and Difonzio's work in particular, since they attempt to distinguish rumor from gossip, in that rumor is supposedly about public issues and gossip is about private, trivial things. The emergence of infotainment and tabloidization in especially American and British news has broken that distinction, since politics is now just as much about bringing the private into the public view, as was clear with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.