Rumour and the politician's public image: the case of Zimbabwe.

Author:Mlambo, Obert Bernard


Often-times people talk of rumour as just baseless statements that seek to discredit the correct information. However, more often than not, almost all rumours have an element of truth in them and some even turn out to be true. In a country like Zimbabwe where information on what is happening on the political-economic sphere is not readily available, rumours seem to play the role of filling the gaps. Originating mostly from anonymous sources who happen to be close to the information at hand, rumours play the part of updating the general population on what is deemed to the true case of what will be happening in the state. Being spread by both the elite and the common person alike, rumour also plays the role of either expressing implicitly (or even explicitly) love or hatred towards one's political enemies. This paper seeks to explore the concept of rumour, bringing to the fore its importance in the Zimbabwean political and economic context, paying particular attention to the rumours that are spread on political figures such as the president, Robert Mugabe, his family and other major political figures.


The term "rumour," as Fine and Ellis (2010) note, is a one that has been used in a variety of ways in popular discourse. Indeed the "conceptual murkiness" surrounding the term--and its relationship to other forms of informal communication, such as gossip and urban legend--are longstanding concerns among social scientists (DiFonzo and Bordia 2007). What distinguishes rumour from gossip, speculation and early articulations of 'news'? While gossip is socially and culturally important, it generally concerns information about the personal lives of individuals and circulates in small communities. Rumours, on the other hand, might circulate on a national or international scale and often relate to collective hopes and fears that reach beyond the moral behaviour of individuals. While news generally denotes information that has been confirmed or generally accepted as true, rumour refers to uncertain or unverified information.

Among scholars, however, a rough consensus regarding the meaning of "rumour" has emerged. Fine and Ellis argue that for social scientists, "rumour is an expression of belief about a specific event that is supposed to have happened or is about to happen. This claim may pique our interest, but lacks what the larger political system considers secure standards of evidence" (2010, 4). Sunstein takes the term to refer to "claims of fact--about people, groups, events, and institutions --that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another and hence have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them" (2009, 6). Finally, DiFanzo and Bordia define the content of rumours as "Instrum entally relevant information statements that are unverified" (2007, 14). Rumours are known to arise in the context of ambiguity, when the meaning of a situation is not readily apparent or when people feel an acute need for security. Rumours hence are a powerful, pervasive, and persistent force affecting people and groups.

Rumour according to anthropologists can be defined as news that one later learned was false. Falsehood, it must be noted, is not an absolute characteristic of rumour. What characterised rumours in Zimbabwe was the intensity with which they were spread. Rumour is not necessarily untrue, but it is true in a special sense in that it has truth for a great many people and this general belief gives it contemporary validity. T Shibutani (2005) argued that the more a rumour story was widespread and widely told, the more it had to conform to plausibility. What made a rumour powerful was that people believed it. Rumours give a glimpse of the world as seen by the people who tell/spread the rumour. In this paper, we argue that rumours can be historicised. To simply dismiss them as false strips them of their intensity and detail. We take rumours as descriptions of extraordinary occurrences.

The anonymity (no one knows where they begin, known one generally wants to be known as a rumourmonger) has often been seen to be guaranteed by the word of mouth medium. Communicating rumours using a medium that could help identify the source was not considered likely. It might be thought that technological developments such as emails (with signatures) and information systems with logins and an audit trail of transactions might have supported continuation of this perspective. However, new forms of technology have been utilised in rumour activity. Though studies on the area are sparse, there is evidence that rumour transmission has been successfully adapted to the virtual age. Professional Pilot's Rumour Network uses a website with anonymous forums while the use of internet email has become a prime medium for rumour transmission (Frost: 2000). From these points of view, rumours are a particular form of misinformation characterized by two features. First, rumours are statements that lack specific standards of evidence. As a result, rumours can be told and transmitted in the absence of a clear standard of proof (Fine and Ellis 2010; Allport and Postman 1947). Under such circumstances, the line between true information and misinformation becomes blurred. Second, rumours are not mere fringe beliefs. They acquire their power through widespread social transmission and repetition. Rumours, then, are more than just frivolous statements of questionable veracity; they can have serious political consequences. What is of importance to note is that rumours often emerge during times of crisis and uncertainty and, because they can spread quickly in such times, rumours can be politically powerful forces.

In earlier decades, the medium for the spread of rumour was primarily word of mouth. However, in the 21st century this has changed. With the coming of the internet, with its various social media platforms, as well as the invention of smartphones, anyone can publish on the web, instantly acquiring a degree of credibility regardless of the quality of information they provide. This characteristic is important because the some rumours are quite divorced from the real world of politics. On the continuum of politically relevant facts ranging from "certain truth" to "certain falsehood", these rumours lie toward the "certain falsehood" end of the spectrum. Given the speed with which information can disseminate through the Web, the potential for the spread of fallacious information through rumours has increased greatly.

As Sunstein argues, "In the era of the Internet it has become easy to spread false or misleading rumours about almost anyone. Material on the Internet has considerable longevity. For all practical purposes, it may even be permanent" (2009, 4). In short, in the Internet age, unsubstantiated rumours may materialize suddenly and then never disappear.

By their very nature, then, rumours are anonymous but often-times contain a high probability for...

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