Rumours abound on Twitter and the internet. The consequences of trolling can be traumatic, says Rachel Borrill.
HAVE you heard the online rumours that opera singer Katherine Jenkins has been having an affair with David Beckham, that Adele has married her long-term boyfriend, and Charlie Sheen has died — yet again?
All of these rumours have been re-tweeted around the world in seconds, but none of them are true. Katherine Jenkins denied on Twitter the “very hurtful and untrue’’ rumours, as did Adele, saying simply “I am not married. Zzzzzzz.’’
According to his management team, Charlie Sheen is alive. So why do people start these rumours?
“It is a form of trolling,’’ says Damien Mulley, an online communications consultant who has advised organisations and government departments on social media.
“They want to illicit a reaction, whether it is positive or negative. It gets people going. I don’t know if there is some sort of league table, but I am sure people compare their rumours to others to see how far it profligates.’’
Mulley says users get a “buzz’’ from watching their tweets being re-tweeted. ” I know if people re-tweet me, I get a mini high, almost like a pull on a cigarette. It is that kind of reward, instant gratification,’’ he says.
According to the latest research, more than 13% of 18-34-year-old British Twitter and Facebook users have ‘trolled’ a celebrity.
Allison Keating, a psychologist and director of the bWell Clinic, in Malahide, Dublin, ponders their intentions and says many of them may need therapy.
“I think the psychological effect on the celebrities would be absolutely horrific,’’ she says. “If someone is thriving on the drama, the shock value of sending out a rumour that isn’t true, then it is reflective of their inner state. If you are being so negative and hurtful for no reason, then it really is quite psychologically unbalanced.”
However, sometimes the rumours are true. An innocent Tweet revealed the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event)” posted Sohaib Athar, a local IT consultant.
Also, the sudden deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were also revealed on Twitter.
“These events meant that people are trusting Twitter as a source. The media is even reporting that these stories were broken on Twitter, so it has a level of trust,’’ says Mulley. However, if the rumour is untrue then it can be very damaging. The person posting it is rarely “outed’’ and can hide behind their anonymity, without any sources or boundaries.
Last summer’s riots in England were fuelled by a wealth of misinformation posted on Twitter and Facebook. Norfolk police publicly criticised social media users for posting “fictitious and malicious rumours’’ which suggested civil unrest had spread there, and that shops were being burnt and looted. The backlash involved other Twitter users trending #stoptherumours’ to deny and dismiss many of the other unsubstantiated claims. Some of the more outlandish claims included: rioters had supposedly released animals from London Zoo, attacked a children’s hospital in Birmingham and set the London Eye on fire. All were untrue.
Mary Aiken, a cyberpsychologist and research fellow at the Institute of Leadership, at the Royal College of Surgeons, describes these actions as a form of ‘crowd-source control’.
“Criticism tweets could minimise the impact of false rumours and so the good news is social-media users could effectively self-regulate their own domain,’’ she says.
The rumour mill can be unstoppable, especially in times of uncertainty or heightened fears in communities. There are thousands of internet sites dedicated to detailing all the rumours surrounding 9/11. Nicolas DiFonzo, a rumour expert at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says fear breeds rumours, and the more collective anxiety within a group, the more inclined it will be to start up the rumour mill.
“One major function of rumours is to figure out the facts and find what the appropriate, adaptive thing to do is, said DiFonzo.
“Look at 9/11. I don’t even remember feeling so threatened as I did after 9/11 and people used rumours to manage that threat,’’ he told Psychology Today.
Countless studies have also revealed that people will believe what they want, even if the facts do not support the story. “I guess it is human nature, where exaggeration and embellishment come from,’’ says Mulley. “Like in 9/11, people wanted to believe the rumours [about bombs being planted] even when all the proof says otherwise. When the BBC showed how the girders would have melted under the heat, people still said, ‘No, I don’t believe it, the BBC must be part of the conspiracy too’.’’
You want to stop the rumours that are doing the rounds about you? Then here are some tips:
¦ Try to rise above it
¦ If it continues, meet the rumour monger to discuss the situation
¦ Make sure people know the truth
¦ Look people in the eyes and say it is unfounded
¦ Examine what is feeding the rumour and stop it
¦ Remain civil and act strong
¦ Pretend you don’t know what people are implying
¦ Don’t become defensive, explain the situation clearly
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