The Power of the Rumor

In Timothy Johnson’s introduction to Being Soviet, he talks about successful rumors. The author states, “Successful rumors… survive on the basis of ‘natural selection’. Those rumors which are credible to those who transmit them are passed on and become successful; rumors which are not credible do not survive” (Johnson, 27). When I hear the word “rumor,” I’m instantly skeptical- of the validity of the statement, and of the trustworthiness of the person relaying said rumor. In truth, I often associate the word “rumor” with “gossip.”

However, what intrigued me and incited me to write a blog was how powerful rumors were within the Soviet Union, noted specifically in the introduction of Timothy Johnson’s Being Soviet. In this reading, Johnson talked about how Soviets were able to acquire news on a daily basis. Discussions soon revealed that while newspapers were generally looked to for news, the rumors spread through familial ties and friends held just as much legitimacy in the minds of the Soviets. Johnson wrote specifically that “Rumors supplemented, rather than replaced, the contents of the official press…However, they did not regard the two [the press versus rumors] as intrinsically in competition with one another. Indeed, they often spoke of cross referencing material from one source against information from another: ‘Even the members of the party among themselves don’t believe everything that they read in the Soviet newspapers . . . Conversations with members of my family or with friends were very important.’” (Johnson, 21).

Upon reading this, I was mildly surprised. I found this to be very similar to American news culture. It’s arguably true that within American society, the population as a whole focuses on the news and newspapers for our daily intake of information. Ironically there is reliability placed in rumors spread throughout the country as well, very similar to the Soviets. Indeed, while at times rumors possess a negative connotation, that doesn’t stop the general population from researching the validity of a rumor, or acknowledging it as partly true, thereby lending integrity to the rumor. Despite how rumors are viewed by society in general, that doesn’t stop the general population from using them to their advantage. For instance, in the political realm, “rumor bombs” are used in various contexts. They’re especially used by political campaigns via smear campaigns to slander one’s opponent, or to revamp or reframe a situation in a way that is politically beneficial to one side of a campaign and utterly destructive to the opposing side. In thinking about rumors in those contexts, it was clear that rumors can’t just be brushed aside as mere gossip, irrelevant to society.

This section of reading truly made me think about rumors and made me realize just how important they are for the population in general. They were essential not only in the Soviet Union where they were a source of news, but also in the modern era. Rumors in a way offer a kind of freedom that press does not. What a newspaper chooses to publish, or a news station chooses to broadcast is beyond the power of the common individual. Rumors offer people a choice- to listen or to dismiss, to share or to not. It’s no wonder that rumors were so powerful and a common way of gaining information within the Soviet Union and in America today. In short, despite possibly negative associations, rumors are commonplace and play an integral and at times even valuable part in society.