How do false rumours start online?

Friday, 22 May, 2020

Rumours and gossip used to be the preserve of the playground, the laundrette and the pub.

Yet today, the internet provides the ultimate petri dish for innuendo and falsehoods.

And in an age where the US President declares falsehoods to be true while dismissing the truth as fake news, spotting false online rumours is harder than ever.

But where does fake news come from? How is it distributed? And are we all to blame for facilitating it?

The social network

Many false online rumours originate on social media.

All it takes is one person with lots of ‘friends’ to claim fluoride gives you measles, or that Hitler designed the Volkswagen Beetle.

Publish an obvious untruth wrapped in a “I can’t believe it but it’s true” fig-leaf, and even an outlandish statement can spread like wildfire.

The instant nature of social media means consumers rarely fact-check information that pops up in their timelines. They’re far more likely to click ‘like’, comment on it – or share it.

And it’s the latter which really fans the flames of false online rumours.

If someone you know presents something as being factually accurate, it instantly has greater credence than if a stranger made an identical claim.

And since it’s estimated everyone knows everyone else through a maximum of six people, the complex webs of connections on social media platforms provide an ideal delivery vector.

Worse, many people who believed a false rumour in the first place will be reluctant to admit their mistake when it’s exposed as untrue.

They might not engage with the lie any further, but nor will they correct themselves or apologise for leading their contacts up the garden path.

And so the rumour gathers pace, as more and more people fall for the same falsehood.

This happens with even greater speed when the rumour feeds into a narrative people already want to believe, or if it lends weight to wider arguments about politics, religion or culture.

Social media algorithms deliberately display content people are likely to engage with, irrespective of its origins, veracity or bias.

The press corpse

There have been many eulogies written to print media, and some less reputable platforms really aren’t helping the industry’s cause.

Tabloid or celebrity websites often publish wild accusations, deliberate manipulations of the truth or downright fallacies as banner headlines, in pursuit of extra site and page visits.

Clickbait websites exist for this specific purpose, endlessly churning out headlines like “The cameraman couldn’t believe what happened next”.

They can warp a throwaway comment into an earth-shattering revelation, often using deceptive photography to embellish a non-story.

Because it originated at a website peppered with social media ‘share’ buttons, it can spread within moments of being published.

Too bad to be true

If you’re suspicious that you’re reading false online rumours, these are four ways to prove or disprove the story:

  • Consider who posted it. If a nationalist links to a story claiming independence would transform the economy, it’s an attempt to build support for their political ideology.
  • Check if the story’s appeared on sites like Reuters, the BBC or ITN. Despite occasionally being hoaxed, these impartial news services rarely fan the flames of false rumours.
  • Do your own research. If a story claims a public figure has come out/died/disappeared, check their social media profiles to see if they’ve admitted or dismissed the rumours.
  • Be sceptical. If something seems implausible, it often is. If a rumour has no obvious foundation, it’s generally untrue. Healthy cynicism helps when navigating the internet.
Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!