Would You Spread a Rumor?
DURING the Middle Ages an incredible rumor spread among the so-called Christians of Europe. It was whispered that each year at Passover, the Jews murdered a Christian and used his blood in their rituals. Sometimes they were said to capture Christian children and torture them horribly before killing them and using their blood. Right up until this century, during the Nazi period in Germany, this rumor was used as an excuse to persecute the Jews.
The story was investigated and disproved several times, yet it persisted for almost a thousand years. If someone had told it to you, would you have shared in spreading it? Hopefully, all of us would have had enough common sense or compassion not to do so. Yet rumors are persistent and complex things. Once started, they are difficult to stop. Even today, absurd rumors spring up and spread like wildfire.
For example, Procter & Gamble, a large firm supplying household products in the United States, was recently victimized by a rumor that it promoted Satanism and that its trademark was really a demon symbol. Another widespread rumor had it that a well-known chain of fast-food stores was putting worms in its hamburgers! Some years ago it was widely believed that a member of the singing group the Beatles had died in an auto accident and had been replaced by a double. Even the Watchtower Society’s publications have been the subject of rumors—for example, that one of the artists had secretly been introducing pictures of demons into the illustrations, was subsequently found out and disfellowshiped!
Did you share in spreading any such stories? If so, you were—perhaps unwittingly—spreading an untruth, since they were all false. Certainly, the rumor concerning the Society’s publications was harmful, as well as slanderous to the zealous Christians who work long hours producing artwork to make the magazines, brochures and books so attractive. This was as ridiculous as it would be to say that God, in creating celestial bodies, deliberately formed the appearance of a ‘man in the moon.’
Many years ago, Jehovah God told the Israelites: “You shall not spread a baseless rumour.” (Exodus 23:1, The New English Bible) There was good reason for that command. Such rumors have bad results. They make the one spreading them a liar, something Jehovah hates. (Proverbs 6:16-19) They affect the reputation of the subject of the rumor. And they deceive the person who listens to the rumor, perhaps inciting him to act unwisely. (Numbers 13:32–14:4) It is most unloving thus to deceive our friends. It goes against God’s command: “You must not deceive, and you must not deal falsely anyone with his associate.”—Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 14:25.
Hence, if we pass on to others a story that we have heard, we should be careful to have the facts right. But how can we do that? One thing that will help us is an understanding of the nature of rumors.
How Does a Rumor Start?
A rumor is “talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source”; or, “a statement or report current without known authority for its truth.” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary) Rumors may spread by word of mouth or may appear in a more “official” guise, even in print or on the radio. The fact that something was on television or in the newspaper does not mean it is true.
How do rumors start? Often it is impossible to say. A loose comment by someone may be picked up, repeated and exaggerated. The suggestion that something might happen can easily become an assertion that it will happen, and then it may be turned to say it did happen. Even a joke can start a rumor if someone takes it seriously and repeats it.
Rumors spring up readily in a climate of fear. When he was foretelling the conditions in Jerusalem as its end approached, the prophet Ezekiel said: “Shuddering will come over them, and they will look in vain for peace. Tempest shall follow upon tempest and rumour upon rumour.” (Ezekiel 7:25, 26, NE) As fear gripped the populace, Jerusalem would become a hotbed of rumors.
Rumors can also be started deliberately. When the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb of the impaled Jesus reported the amazing events they had witnessed at Jesus’ resurrection, the elders of the Jews told them to spread a false rumor. They said: “Say, ‘His disciples came in the night and stole him while we were sleeping.’” The soldiers obeyed. “So they took the silver pieces and did as they were instructed; and this saying has been spread abroad among the Jews up to this very day.”—Matthew 28:13-15.
Why Rumors Spread
More interesting is the question: Why do rumors, once started, spread with such persistence? Often it is simply because people want to believe them. Some newspaper reporters make a career out of repeating rumors about prominent people. They would soon be out of work if there was no market for such stories. Many people are like the Greeks of Paul’s day, always avid to hear “something new.”—Acts 17:21.
Rumors spread, too, because they fit in with widely held misconceptions and prejudices. The false rumor about the Jews’ killing Christians doubtless fell on receptive ears because non-Jews did not understand the Jews. They feared them or were jealous of them. Rumors may also reflect widespread uneasiness about something. The rumor about worms in the hamburgers may have persisted because of people’s nervousness about additives and secret ingredients in foods. And the rumor about Procter & Gamble may have taken root because so many people today have a fascination with demonism and spiritism.
Rumors will also flourish where governments or authorities act secretively. And they can even be nurtured by wishful thinking. For decades, stories have circulated that flying saucers have landed, supposedly carrying benign creatures from advanced scientific societies on other planets. In this troubled 20th century, some people may find it comforting to believe that these beings really exist.
Moreover, a rumor may be sparked or seemingly confirmed by misinterpretation of facts. In the first century it was rumored that the apostle Paul was encouraging the Jews to apostatize from Moses. (Acts 21:21, 24) The rumor was false, but it may have been fueled by the fact that Paul, obeying the decision of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, taught that Gentile Christians did not have to come under the Mosaic Law.—Acts 15:5, 28, 29.
Separate the True From the False
Is everything, then, that is spread by word of mouth a false rumor? Not at all. Back in the days of Joshua, Rahab of Jericho told the Israelite spies: “For we have heard how Jehovah dried up the waters of the Red Sea from before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan.” (Joshua 2:10, 11) These stories that Rahab had heard were true.
Similarly, when Jesus was performing signs around the land of Israel, the Bible says: “And the report about him went out into all Syria; and they brought him all those faring badly, distressed with various diseases and torments, demon-possessed and epileptic and paralyzed persons, and he cured them.” (Matthew 4:23, 24) The reports about Jesus were also true.
So how can we determine whether a story is true or merely a rumor? Here are some things to bear in mind when someone shares a choice piece of information with you:
Who told you the story? Is he the sort of person who never says something unless he is sure of his facts? Or is he always trying to pry into other people’s affairs? Is he trying to be first in coming up with juicy stories? The source of the story makes a big difference as to whether it is likely to be accurate or not. And this brings to mind a related point: Those in positions of trust or responsibility, such as elders in a congregation or mature Christian women, should be doubly sure of the facts before passing on a story, if they need to pass it on at all. People are more likely to believe what they say and repeat it.—Acts 20:28; Titus 2:3.
Was the one who told you the story in a position to know the facts? Typical rumors often start something like this: “I heard from my uncle who knows the man who works in . . .” If you hear that kind of introduction, beware! Some children play a game where they stand in a circle and one whispers a short sentence to his neighbor. His neighbor whispers it to the next one, who in turn passes it on. When the sentence has passed all the way around the circle, the children have a lot of fun seeing how much it has changed. Many of us have played that game, but have we learned the lesson from it? When stories pass from one person to another, they inevitably change and soon bear little resemblance to their original form. Thus if you cannot pinpoint the exact source of the story, it is probably safe to assume that it is distorted or even entirely false.
Is the story slanderous? If a story detracts from the good name of some person, profession, race or organization, treat it with extreme caution. This is true even if you do not feel particularly friendly toward that group or person. Slander is slander and lies are lies, whoever the victims are. Jesus was frank in his condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, but can you imagine his spreading slanderous rumors about them?—1 Peter 2:21, 22.
Is the story plausible? Is it really likely that spaceships are visiting our planet? Or that a major commercial company would make a pact with the Devil? Or do dedicated artists really hide faces in magazine pictures? Stories that sound so unlikely should be taken with more than a grain of salt.
Stop Rumors, Spread Truth
This is not to say that amazing things never happen. Sometimes they do. But when we hear about them we should act wisely and not gullibly believe every story that comes along. When stories spread around Palestine that a carpenter from Nazareth was performing miracles the reports were, as it happened, true. (Matthew 4:24) Nevertheless, when John the Baptist heard them, he sent his disciples to find out exactly what was going on. (Matthew 11:2, 3) That was a balanced reaction.
When the apostle Thomas heard of the resurrection of Jesus, he doubted. (John 20:24, 25) But in this case he should have realized that this was not a baseless rumor. He knew about the resurrections that Jesus himself had performed, and he had heard Jesus speak about his own coming death and resurrection. (Matthew 16:21; John 11:43, 44) Moreover, the ones giving him the report were people he knew he could trust. And they were not repeating a story they had heard thirdhand. They were eyewitnesses, and they were available for him to question to see if they could possibly have been mistaken.
Yes, some stories we hear may be true. But common sense will tell us that in any nation, village or even organization, rumors will spread, especially rumors that reflect the basic desires or fears of the community. And there always exists a strong possibility that a rumor is, at best, a distortion of the truth. Hence, if you hear a story and cannot pinpoint the source of it, think for yourself and be sure of your facts before you pass it on to others. Remember, “in the abundance of words there does not fail to be transgression, but the one keeping his lips in check is acting discreetly.” (Proverbs 10:19) Do not be a channel for rumor, but rather, be a “dead end.” Thus you will fulfill the words of the apostle Paul: “Wherefore, now that you have put away falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, because we are members belonging to one another.”—Ephesians 4:25.
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Rumors are persistent. Once started, they are difficult to stop
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If you spread a rumor, you may be spreading a lie
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Not everything spread by word of mouth is necessarily a false rumor
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Was the person who told you the story in a position to know the facts?