Rumors—Should You Believe Them?
WHO is there that has not heard a rumor? The more fantastic and excitement-arousing or scandalous the rumor, often the more readily it is believed and spread. Rumors excite, disturb, cause anxiety, raise false hopes and may slander people. Obviously, then, rumors are something to be reckoned with. How can one avoid being misled, disturbed unnecessarily or falsely encouraged?
First of all, it will help you to keep in mind the definition of a rumor—”a story or statement talked of as news without any proof that it is true.” Whether it has basis in actuality or not, the rumor lacks acceptable authority. So you can detect a rumor not only by the obvious words “there is a rumor that . . .” but also by the fact that its distinguishing feature is lack of sound evidence. The rumor has no secure standard of evidence. Well, then, should you believe rumors?
Since a rumor, when checked out, all too often bears the same resemblance to truth as a broken mirror does to a whole one, would it be wise to accept it as authentic information? In most cases, no, especially if the rumor does not personally affect you or if it is not reasonable or if it contradicts sound facts in your possession. If you blindly regard a rumor as true, passing it on, remember, you may be held accountable for it.
To protect yourself against false reports, it is well to weigh what you hear, to test rumors with what authorities you have. You should also want to protect your friends. Unfortunately, many people do not do that. They hear a rumor and pass it on as truth if the item is of sufficient interest, even though it may injure someone. It is amazing with what speed rumors can travel. They can spread through a factory, an office or a community with greater speed than many other methods of communication.
The rumor that Nero set fire to Rome in 64 C.E., for instance, must have spread like wildfire. That rumor was put out by Nero’s enemies, and most modern scholars doubt that Nero was in any way responsible for the fire. They regard it as accidental. But the rumor that Nero set fire to the city has persisted down to this day. To counteract the false rumor, Nero spread one of his own: That the Christians set fire to the city. This led to a terrible persecution of the Christians.
In our day rumors are amazingly prevalent. One of the latest on a global scale was on April 13, 1964, when it was flashed around the world that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was dead. It was a false rumor, started apparently as a hoax. A television office in Hamburg, West Germany, received a press telegram saying that Khrushchev died of “hephacapaly tirosis.” But that office, evidently suspicious, did not take any action on the message. Another rumor telegram had been sent to a radio office in Cologne. That office repeated it to the Hamburg headquarters of the German press agency, closing with the words, “Can you confirm this?” But the teletype reader excitedly tore off the message before the final words appeared. As a result, a flash was sent out, saying, “Khrushchev dead.” By the time the lost line, “Can you confirm this?” was discovered, it was too late. A false rumor had spread around the world.
When rumors come your way, what reasonable measures can you take to protect yourself? If evidence is lacking, usually it is wise to disregard the rumor. It is sobering to realize that you do not know. So when evidence is absent, be careful about getting excited, disturbed, angry, elated, discouraged or charged with whatever emotion the rumor is likely to evoke.
What if a rumor directly affects your health or safety? The fact that there is no known authority for some news does not in itself mean it is invariably false. It could be true. If someone reported that he heard a bad storm was coming, you might inquire about the source of his information. Perhaps he just “heard a rumor” about it. Yet it could affect your safety, so you may wish to confirm it; and that can often be done simply by turning on the radio or calling the weather bureau.
But what about rumors that do not affect you personally? Well, is it really worth your while or is it really your obligation to try to confirm them? If it is of no great consequence, is it worth your time and the time of others who may be involved, to have to confirm or deny it? Why bother if it does not make any difference anyway?
If a rumor does not involve you personally and it is something that cannot be easily confirmed, such as by reference to a newspaper or magazine or by turning on a radio, then why risk spreading something that may not be true?
Should you have facts that prove the rumor false, then puncture the rumor balloon before it travels farther.
If a false rumor involves an organization with which you are associated, you may especially be in a position to puncture it. For example, if a Bible research organization regularly publishes information in its official publications and someone comes along with a rumor that conflicts with what you read in the official publications, then what? Are you going to put a rumor above what is official? That would not be wise. If you are uncertain, check what is published officially. Is a reputable organization going to disseminate vital information via rumormongers? No, such an organization uses official spokesmen and official publications.
Christians especially must recognize a rumor for what it is, for they are under command by God: “Now that you have put away falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, . . . whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers.”—Eph. 4:25, 29.