At last count, the Federal Communications Commission had received over 11 million angry letters over a seven-year period protesting Madalyn Murray O'Hair's petition to remove religious broadcasting from the airwaves. Mrs. O'Hair's battle against school prayers is well remembered, but her campaign against religious broadcasting is strictly imaginary. Neither she nor anyone else filed such a petition. But despite repeated FCC
corrections, thousands of letters day were still arriving [Telecast, 1976; Koza, 1982). Such is the power of rumor. A rumor is a rapidly spreading report unsubstantiated by fact. Rumors may be spread by mass media or by word of mouth. Much of our casual conversation consists of rum or mongering. Every topic, from neighbors' morals to the fate of the nation, attracts interesting and disturbing rumors. Whenever there is a
social strain, rumors flourish. Wherever accurate and complete facts on a matter of public, concern are not available or are not believed, rumors abound. Since rumors can ruin reputations, .discredit causes, and undermine morale, the manipulation of rumor is a common propaganda device.
In a classic work on rumor, Airport and Postman (1947, p. 46] point out that a great amount of rumor mongering springs from nothing more complicated than the desire for interesting conversation or the enjoyment of a salacious story.' Public celebrities attract rumors like honey draws flies. Thus, a rumor of the mysterious death of one of the Beatles spread among young people in 1971 and persisted despite repeated denials [Suckle, 1972]. People are most likely, however, to believe and spread a rumor if it will justify" their dislikes or relieve their emotional tensions. People who dislike Republicans, hate blacks, or despise welfare clients will remember and repeat damaging rumors about these groups. The rumor charges continuously as it spreads, for people unconsciously' distort it into the form that most perfectly supports their antagonisms. People uncritically accept and believe a rumor if it fits in with their pattern of beliefs and dislikes, or if it provides an emotionally satisfying explanation of something. Every presidential assassination has produced
a flood of rumors of assassination conspiracies [Belin, 1973]. The conspiracy rumor is especially satisfying. It gives one the flattering feeling of having "inside" knowledge, along with a delicious sense of fearlessly denouncing evildoers. Rumors are not very effectively dispelled
by truthful correction. The "rumor control centers" established in many cities during the 196Os' urban riots were of doubtful effectiveness [Knopf, 1975, pp. 301-315]. Such centers often spread the rather than the correction [Pointing, 1973]. Some scholars claim 'hat more effective techniques of rumor control are now available [Rosnow and Fine, 1976], but other scholars question whether his is true [Weinberg and Etch, 1975J. Rumors are believed and spread because people need and like them. As Shibutani [1966, p. 139] proposes: "The process of rumor construction is terminated when the situation in which it arose is no longer problematic:" This means,